Why education will never stop rape

Content warning: discussion of rape and abuse 
Written by Jessica Eaton – VictimFocus

05/07/2018

This blog is long overdue. I have been talking about this issue for about 18 months now but I am learning that the myth that rape and sexual violence comes from a lack of education is a strongly embedded myth in the UK (and maybe abroad but I only have limited experience working in other countries).

It doesn’t matter who I say it to, professionals recoil with horror when I tell them the following things:

  • Educating children about sexual abuse will not reduce sexual abuse
  • Educating women about rape will not stop them from being raped
  • Educating men about male rape will not reduce male rape
  • Awareness raising campaigns about sexual violence will not end sexual violence
  • Education about being sexually exploited will not change sexual exploitation
  • Educating children about being groomed online will not reduce grooming online

I said these things recently in a couple of national workshops, at a conference and in some meetings and the response is generally the same: shock, and then anger.

So I am writing this blog to set out the problems with assuming that education can solve rape, sexual violence and abuse – from both angles, by educating victims and by educating perpetrators. Education is clearly not the answer and yet we are ignoring all of the warning signs.

Before we go any further, I am NOT saying that education is useless or irrelevant. I write and teach sex and relationships ed myself. I even teach children about porn and sexual abuse. So, I am pro sex-ed from the earliest possible age.

However. And this is a HUGE HOWEVER.

I do not do my job, believing that educating those children, women or men – will protect them from a calculated and motivated sex offender. And herein lies the crux of this blog.

Here are my 5 main arguments of why education will never stop rape:

1. Education is not preventative or protective for victims

Education is a wonderful thing. We can teach children and adults about relationships, respect, sex, their bodies, their development, their identities and even teach them about their perspectives on the world.

We can teach them about abuse. We can teach them about rape. We can teach them all about domestic abuse and familial abuse. These are all great steps forward for a society that still regards abuse and sex as taboo.

However, we have taken a bit of a leap of logic over the past few years in a desperate bid to appear like we are doing something positive or to look like we have all the answers. We started to sell packages of education to each other and to victims of abuse and rape (child and adult) that assume that the REASON the child or adult was raped or abused, was because they couldn’t identify abusive behaviours and grooming tactics. Some companies and individuals got fat off the profit – some still are. They sell programmes to schools and tell the school that their work is ‘preventative education’ – to ‘reduce the risk of being abused’.

This is absolute bollocks. There is no way this can be proved – but also, this ignores the fact that it doesn’t matter how educated you are, if a sex offender can overpower you physically or psychologically, your education disappears. That’s why police officers and rape specialists can still experience rape. That’s why qualified social workers working in social care can still be in abusive relationships at home.

I once worked on a case of a very successful female solicitor who specialised in domestic and sexual violence. Her husband was an extremely dangerous abuser. He would lock her in the house and cut all the phone lines, smash her phone up, cut the electricity off, abuse her and keep her there for days with no contact with the outside world. Then he would blackmail her with her job and telling everyone about her, knowing it would ruin her career. At one point, he locked her in a place outside with nothing but a tent.

This woman was at the pinnacle of her career. She knew everything there was to know about domestic and sexual violence. But education and knowledge did not save her from such a dangerous and controlling abuser.

Think about it. Education is educative. It is not preventative or protective. Education will not protect any of us from a sex offender or an abuser in our inner circle.

 

2. Education has not solved a social problem or oppression yet

This is really important but this is also the point that annoys me the most. We often claim to be evidence based in our work – which would mean drawing on evidence from the past and from parallel issues. However, we don’t seem to do this much.

Education has attempted, and failed to solve lots of serious social issues and crime types. Education has not reduced the statistics of domestic abuse at all. Education and awareness campaigns has not reduced the statistics of women being murdered every week by their partners – in fact, in our age of wokeness and information, its gone up! Education has not reduced racism or war or genocide or terrorism or misogyny or… anything really.

Education has certainly raised our awareness of the issues. Maybe we can all converse about it. Maybe we know what FGM stands for and we know what radicalisation is now. But has that awareness translated into safety for humans around the world? Did we all have epiphanies with our new knowledge and stop harming each other? Nope.

This is arguably because these issues are not from lack of education. You don’t call an entire generation ‘cockroaches’ or ‘bad hombres’ because you need a bit more education. You don’t hold a child down whilst you abuse them because you missed the awareness raising in Coronation Street the other week. You don’t drive a truck into a group of Muslims because you didn’t have enough information about Islam.

Come on. Education is vital, but we have to stop pretending that it is the magic bullet.

 

3. Educating victims and then expecting them to protect themselves is victim blaming

This was the first time I think I ever blew my stack at work. It was when I realised that we were sitting children down who had been repeatedly raped and abused by adults and getting them to learn about consent and healthy relationships as a way to ‘reduce their CSE risk’. I couldn’t think of anything more damaging or patronising. It partially led to my #nomoreCSEfilms campaign – in which films of rape and abuse were being shown to children as an educative or preventative method.

In exactly the same way as the domestic abuse field had to learn that leaving a woman and her children to be raped and battered by an abusive partner whilst we taught her about keeping herself safe and what a healthy relationship looks like was completely inappropriate and a form of victim blaming; here we are in sexual violence.

We are investing left right and centre in sessions for school children about how to reduce their risk of being raped or abused. We are putting on workshops for women going to university. We are talking to girls before they transition up to secondary school. We are making police force campaign posters with images of unconscious women with their knickers around their ankles that say ‘Don’t drink too much tonight’.

We are heavily psychologically invested in telling victims what not to do, so they stay safe from a rapist or abuser. So heavily invested in fact that when activists or victims stand up and say ‘Why don’t you tell the rapist not to rape people instead?’ its either met with shock or it is laughed at as a stupid approach to sexual violence, because victims have a ‘responsibility to keep themselves safe’.

Someone said to me last week:

“If we know that a certain sex offender operates in a local venue, and we educate all the kids that the sex offender is there, they can protect themselves from that sex offender because they were educated. We can educate kids about where sex offenders hang around and how they will target them – so education does work.”

And I said:

“But 97% of rapes and sexual abuse occur at home with their significant others or family members as the perpetrators, so what are you gonna say to them? Don’t go home? Leave? How do you educate a child or adult to ‘keep themselves safe’ if their rapists lives at home with them? Can you educate them out of that situation?”

The reality is, education as a method has good intentions and we shouldn’t abandon it as a universal right to information and education – but telling children and adults who are already being harmed, raped, assaulted or abused that they can protect themselves once they have the education is a horrible form of victim blaming. It positions the victims as uneducated or unaware, and therefore reframes them as culpable because they ‘didn’t know enough’.

4. Educating sex offenders hasn’t worked out too well for us so far

The opposite argument to all of this, is that we should educate offenders – and potential offenders about sexual violence and consent so they don’t commit a crime (or any more crimes). Most people I teach come to this conclusion before really thinking it through. They assume that if teaching victims is negative, the positive outcomes must come from placing responsibility on the sex offender and educating them to stop raping and abusing children and adults.

I wish it was that simple. So did many others. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that thousands of people working in forensic psychology, prisons, CJS, criminology and psychiatry all thought the same. Much research and development was done over the past thirty years to look at education of sex offenders to look at things like sexual schemas, rape supportive beliefs, cognitive distortions and so on.

In 2016, the USA released a report that showed that the Sex Offender Treatment Programme actually increased sex offending in the men who went through it – and less than a year later, the UK released the same findings. The SOTP was dropped from every prison and community programme and we were back to square one. Why would an educative programme fail like this? Why would men who had committed sexual offences and then spent weeks in a SOTP become more dangerous?

The truth is, the SOTP was designed to be an individually tailored, one-to-one programme based on the offence and characteristics of the offender. When it was expanded and watered down by government and prisons, it turned into a classroom based group programme where lots of sex offenders spent time together talking about their offences, feelings, beliefs, thoughts and sexual schemas. Instead of education, we caused collusion. We caused normalisation and minimisation. The same has more recently been found in domestic abuse perpetrator programmes that have group elements.

Education is not the answer here, either.

Sex offenders who are motivated to harm others, will do so. They didn’t end up in prison for raping six children because they needed some education and some workshops. They did it because they wanted to and because they created an opportunity to do so. And so it becomes glaringly obvious that we have missed something vital in our calculations…

 

5. Sexual violence is so much more than a misunderstanding or ignorance of consent

Someone said to me last month:

“Most men in university who rape young women do it because they don’t understand consent and misunderstand when women say ‘no’.”

Yah. Sorry but I call major BS on that. Sexual violence is not a lack of education. It is not a low awareness. It is not misunderstanding or ignorance. It’s not that these people don’t know what ‘no’ means.

Sexual violence is a global social phenomena wrapped up in misogyny, hypersexualisation of society and children, economic factors, power struggles, porn culture, rape myths, weak laws and… individual motivations.

The uncomfortable truth is that our education cannot undo the damage our society has already done – and we cannot use education of individuals to change the way our entire society of millions of people have absorbed messages from porn, advertisement, patriarchy and the media.

The true way to combat sexual violence is to begin to reflect on the world we have created for ourselves. No point in blaming society when we ARE the society. It is us who allow porn to feature children, violence, rapes, torture, strangling, suffocation and abuse. It is us who allow our children to become sexualised by the media, by marketing and by popular culture. It is us who allow entire generations to be oppressed and harmed by a second powerful group. It is us who are so desperate for power over each other that the heady mix of sex and power gets mixed together to form an influential rape culture that is celebrated and accepted everywhere.

Education alone cannot solve these issues. We need drastic, human, individual and collective change. Educating children in a school hall or adults in a small group therapy about abuse and expecting them to be able to keep themselves safe – and then sending them off into that society we have created for them is WHY none of this is working. Educating sex offenders in prisons and community groups and then sending them off into that very same rape-supportive society we created for them is WHY none of this is working.

A message to professionals and commissioners:

Lots of professionals and commissioners are terrified when faced with the prospect that what they have been told to do won’t actually protect children or adults from sexual violence and to them, I say this:

  • Sometimes, you cannot fix a huge global issue like this – but you CAN fix the way you or your organisation responds to it. You might not be able to end sexual violence or abuse or CSE – but you can vastly improve the way you interact with victims and the services you deliver
  • Telling someone that the reason they were abused, raped or assaulted was because they didn’t know any better and that knowing more about abuse or rape could have stopped it from happening to them is abhorrent practice – make sure no one in your team says or believes that
  • Do we make daft promises like ‘We aim to end murder by 2020’ – no, we don’t. We know that won’t happen. But we are making massive promises like that in abuse and sexual violence. ‘We aim to end child abuse!’ ‘We aim to end CSE’. Good for you, but, you won’t. So stop chasing the impossible dream and focus on what you CAN do. Stop making promises we can’t keep. Stop selling products that don’t do what you say they do.
  • Stop commissioning education of victims as preventative or protective method. It’s patronising and it’s unethical. Focus on asking them what they need from you or your organisation. Support? Advice? Practical help? Someone to offload on? Someone to help them with a criminal trial?
  • Do not use education as an excuse to blame victims of sexual violence and rape. Education would likely not have made any difference to what a sex offender chose to do to them. The victim is not the problem here, the offender is.
  • When you are thinking about the problem of sexual violence, think bigger. Look around you. See adverts, music videos, porn, upskirting, forced marriage, laws, policies, campaigning, imagery, film plots… you live in a sexually violent society that celebrates forced sexual activity and the objectification of women and children
  • Remember that you can do a brilliant job of educating children, adults, professionals and even offenders – but to do so you must accept that you can’t predict or control sexual violence perpetrated by offenders you don’t even know.
  • Your education might have a positive impact on the people you are teaching, but please do not assume or expect it to protect them from rape or abuse – and don’t blame them if they are attacked after you educated them.
  • Outcomes measurement is important here – do not mix up your values and beliefs with true outcome measurement. If you educate 500 teenagers – the outcome is that you provided education to 500 teenagers. The outcome is not ‘we reduced the risk of 500 teenagers’ or ‘500 teenagers are now educated in sexual violence’ or ‘500 teenagers now better understand how to protect themselves’. You provided information, that is what you did.

 

Jessica Eaton is the founder of VictimFocus and the VictimFocus Charter to reduce victim blaming in professional workplaces and organisations. http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

My Post (1)

 

9 thoughts on “Why education will never stop rape

  1. So thought provoking! Thank you Jessica. I provide a workshop for women where we create a space for conversations that rarely happen. We do not talk about rapists and their victims but rather predators and their targets. We talk about threat vs risk and how we do not control the threat. We talk about risk as a combination of likelihood and impact informed by our own personal risk tolerance. We talk about a tactically informed approach to following our passions in life. We work at keeping the discussions grounded in reality and reconnecting with our instincts or that “Blink” factor.
    What you have said about education is valid and a good reminder and filter for our messaging. It is so easy to slip from these conversations to “educating ” and creating a false sense of security.

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  2. Absolutely bloody nailed it Jess. Brilliant!

    Keep them coming – it’s having an impact and that’s when the ripple effect kicks in helping these messages to gain momentum.

    Abused YP over my career consistently declared we couldn’t have prevented their trauma, pain and misery BUT we can help them to recover.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you’re right to point to the limitations and failings of education as a violence prevention and reduction strategy, and its potential victim-blaming. And I think the above also throws baby out with bathwater, seriously over-stating the ineffectiveness and irrelevance of educational strategies.
    Yes, the evidence base for education’s impact on violence perpetration and victimisation is sparse and weak. But some well-designed interventions *do* show positive impacts. Including from recent studies of rape resistance and self-defence training among women, by Senn et al. I’ve pasted an excerpt below from my forthcoming book “Engaging Men and Boys in Violence Prevention”, which gives a little more detail.
    Michael Flood.

    —————–

    The evidence base for educational programs’ impact on actual perpetration and victimisation is weaker. For a start, many evaluations are vulnerable to the criticisms noted above, including a reliance on risk factors or proxy variables for violence such as attitudes rather than including measures of violent behaviours themselves. As Ellsberg et al. (2015) note, only a few school-based group interventions can show evidence of reductions in violence perpetration and/or victimisation. They identify only three programs which have produced significant reductions in violence, in these cases in dating violence among adolescents. In this same review, only two of 17 rigorously assessed school-based interventions to reduce non-partner sexual assault had significantly positive results. A review of gender-transformative interventions among heterosexually active men included eight interventions addressing the perpetration of violence against women. All used small group discussions, and three had an additional community component. Of the eight studies, six reported declines in men’s perpetration of physical or sexual violence against women, although many of the studies did not include comparison groups and relied on self-selection of participants.
    While most evaluations have taken place in high-income countries, some programs in low- and middle-income countries also have shown positive results. For example, Stepping Stones (which uses participatory learning approaches to build knowledge, risk awareness, and communication and relationship skills relating to gender, violence and HIV) was subject to a 70-village cluster-randomised trial in South Africa among young men and women aged 15-26. Two years after the intervention, men’s self-reported perpetration of physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence was significantly lower than that of men in the control villages, although there were no differences in women’s reports of IPV victimization between the intervention and control villages (Arango, Morton, Gennari, Kiplesund, & Ellsberg, 2014).

    [FROM ANOTHER PIECE OF MINE]
    Only a few school-based or university-based group interventions can show evidence of reductions in violence perpetration and/or victimisation. Among university efforts, these include a multi-session program among men in a university residence (Gidycz, Orchowski, & Berkowitz, 2011), a four-by-three-hour sexual assault resistance program among female students (Charlene Y. Senn et al., 2015; Charlene Y Senn et al., 2017), a mixed-sex, multi-session program among first-year students (Rothman & Silverman, 2007), and other interventions (Ellsberg et al., 2015).

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  4. I spent 7 years 9 months in an abusive relationship. Learning how to protect myself, how to recognize and avoid toxic or dangerous situations, has been crucial to my recovery.

    Not trying to invalidate your perspective. But that paragrah on how victim education is victim blaming makes me feel really bad, “triggered” I guess. Maybe the films you talk about were bad, I don’t know. I was a feminist long before realizing that how my bf treated me was unacceptable, and yeah, I guess that all the theoretical education in the world wouldn’t have let me see what what happening – because you fall for such abuse for complex reasons of low self-esteem and beliefs about yourself and about love, and life never looks like the picture in the textbook. But afterwards, understanding what I thought and did that led me to enable and encourage him was so important to me. I get that it’s not the same for all victims. But spending so much time with a guy who wasn’t strong and who never used physical violence to overpower me, happened because I let it happen. I’m not blaming myself when I say that. The guilt is 100% on him. When I see a vulnerability in someone, I don’t use it to hurt them. But I was still looking for abuse. I was going for toxic abusive personalities. I was pushing away respectful and self-respecting male or female friends / partners. I was putting myself in situations bound to end up in violence. Seeing it, and learning to undo it, saved my life.

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  5. This is a very intriguing article that has opened my eyes. But I have a few questions. You talk of how educating adults does not help, and while i agree you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, what about teaching rape in classroom to younger kids? if we were to teach at a young age what rape is then do you think that would help? I read an article about a councilor that helped rapist and victims. She said most of her rapist didn’t actually know what they were doing was rape. And once again I agree with you when people say that “boys misunderstood no” is “bs.” But what about the rape victims that are intoxicated, drugged, or asleep? Do all boys know that it’s not an open opportunity? Obviously not or we would have less rape victims. And what about all the kids who grew up with rape? Without rape education will they just go on with their lives thinking that it was normal? And who is it to say that education hasn’t effected at least one kids? “It hasn’t helped now so it never will” isn’t an excuse to quit trying. You wouldn’t tell people evacuating for a hurricane that their is no use on leaving its just going to hit anyways and the Red Cross will be their to help after its done. That would not happen. If you could give any protection at all, at least to one person, wouldn’t you do it? Or would you just back out because it doesn’t help the mass? And maybe teaching sexual assault to those who were affected might not help all but it would make some of those people feel not alone. Like they weren’t the only person out their.

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    1. Hurricanes are not motivated to harm humans. Hurricanes are not choosing to hurt the humans on purpose no matter what they do to try to stop it. Hurricanes are not attacking humans for their own gratification and then telling everyone that they didn’t know it would hurt people.

      No rape is committed due to lack of education, that much is sure. For example, would you have sex with a sleeping or unconscious body? Have you ever even had that thought? No. You know why? Because you’re not turned on by sexually assaulting an unconscious body. That’s not because anyone taught you that was wrong.

      Second, people who were raped in childhood have a tiny tiny chance of going on to commit it. For example, the majority of all victims of sexual violence are girls. So why don’t millions of girls go on to become sex offenders in adulthood?

      I deliver sex Ed, and sessions with kids and adults – but they are educative – they are not preventative. My education will not stop a sex offender from attacking them.

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