Days after the Richmond High rape, crisis center director Rhonda James said that she had a training that could have prevented or lessened the severity of the attack on the teenage girl. The October rape horrified the local community and drew national attention to the city. Richmond residents were stunned by reports of up to 20 bystanders who witnessed and cheered on multiple assailants as they raped a 16-year-old girl for more than 2 hours.
James demanded access to Richmond High at a safety meeting that followed the attack, to offer training that gives bystanders tools to intervene in acts of violence against women. She should have been admitted to the school before, she said. James is the executive director of Community Violence Solutions, the rape crisis center that serves Contra Costa and Marin Counties. CVS offers a training called My Strength, a rape-prevention program that is directed at young men rather than women and is offered through rape crisis centers statewide.
Offering sexual assault prevention classes for men—and the classes are gender-specific—seems counterintuitive to some training participants.
“A lot of men don’t believe that it is their issue or that they have anything to do with it,” said Jack Schmidt, a prevention educator at CVS in San Pablo. Schmidt’s job as a My Strength trainer is to draw out young men’s beliefs about sexual assault. An essential part of My Strength is showing men who will likely never be perpetrators how they can end violence against women, Schmidt said.
Students begin with exercises that ask them to consider traditional ideas of masculinity, said Chad Sniffen, a Prevention Services Coordinator at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The coalition licensed and adapted the My Strength training from Men Can Stop Rape, a Washington D.C.-based organization devoted to sexual assault prevention.
In a typical discussion of what it means to be a man, “themes emerge around power and dominance, physical appearance and strength, invulnerability, leadership, violence, emotional control, overcoming obstacles,” Sniffen said.
Schmidt reports similar discussions in his classes. “Those are the widely held beliefs, not just for the guys in My Strength, but in society as a whole,” he said. Masculinity is also associated with sexual prowess, he said, “being heterosexual and having lots of sex with women.”
Trainers are careful not to push students too far away from their ideas about gender, fearing too much of a challenge to their beliefs would be counterproductive. Instead, they offer a version of masculine strength that is not associated with dominating women or perpetrating violence against them.
They also ask students to think of public figures who fit their idea of what it means to be a man and who would never condone violence against women. Barack Obama is frequently mentioned as such a role model, Schmidt said.
Trainers also emphasize that seeing women as sexual objects, or degrading women by describing them with words like “bitch,” help to create a cultural atmosphere that fosters sexual assault. “There are going to be some men out there who take that to heart and do treat women like dogs or animals,” Schmidt said. “It certainly contributes to a culture of violence.”
My Strength training shows men who witness the degradation of women how to speak up and challenge it, Schmidt said. Students role-play to practice confronting a man harassing a woman on the street or using abusive language to describe women. “That may not be the easiest thing for young men to do, especially in a locker room setting or in a social setting like that,” Schmidt said.
My Strength treats men as a force of positive action, trainers said. “We look at men not as potential perpetrators but as potential agents of change,” Schmidt said.
As Richmond struggled for answers in the aftermath of the assault at Richmond High, crisis director James crystallized the logic of this approach to ending rape. “What the heck are we talking to girls for?” she asked more than once. “They are not assaulting.”