Challenging Dogma - Fall 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shifting the Paradigm to No Where: How the American College Health Association Failed Primary Prevention – Erin Williston

United States college students are increasingly threatened with violence on campus. One of the most pervasive forms of violence happens in a place students rarely anticipate. National studies have consistently found approximately 32% of college students experience domestic/ relationship violence (1). The overwhelming prevalence of violence against women on college campuses is well documented nationally. Women ages 16-24 are at the highest risk for rape and other forms of intimate partner violence (2). While the statistics are omnipresent, higher education has neglected to set their sights higher than simply responding to incidents of violence, a form of public health called tertiary prevention.

In April 2007, the American College Health Association stepped out with their, “Position Statement on Preventing Sexual Violence on College and University Campuses”. What followed was a document with a mission to “provide facts, ideas, strategies, conversation starters and resources to everyone on campus who cares about prevention of sexual violence” – the ACHA toolkit, Shifting the Paradigm: Primary Prevention of Sexual Violence. Primary prevention is a public health approach using environmental and system-level strategies, policies, and actions that prevent sexual violence from initially occurring. The problem with Shifting the Paradigm surrounds not its idea to use primary prevention to address the issue – but in the theories and interventions it encourages its audience to use. The interventions presented are deficient, archaic, and fail to speak the language of higher education as an organization.

Promoting a Deficient Tool – Opening Pandora’s Box

Shifting the Paradigm authors encourage screening for sexual violence in college health and wellness services. This tool could help identify survivors of sexual assault, provide client centered services in the health care setting and encourage reporting. While screening is widely debated and mildly supported in medical-based literature, it is not primary prevention (11).

What is most interesting in this proposed intervention is the missing critical piece. There is no mention on training medical care providers to ask the questions proposed in this intervention! There isn’t even an analysis of student health centers and their ability to train and implement an effective screening tool. The classic study Opening Pandora’s Box helps explain why it is vital to deliver training to providers who will implement these screening tools.

An analysis of interviews with physicians found exploring domestic violence in the clinical setting analogous to "opening Pandora's box." Their issues included lack of comfort, fear of offending, powerlessness, loss of control, and time constraints. This study revealed several barriers that physicians perceived as preventing them from comfortably intervening with domestic violence victims. These issues need to be addressed in training programs (3).

Student health centers are not equipped to respond to the answers these questions will bring. Questions such as:

    • “Has someone ever touched you in a sexual manner against your will or without your consent?”
    • “Have you ever recognized you had ‘unwanted’ sex while drunk or using drugs?”
    • “Do you feel that you have control over your sexual relationships and your partner will respect your wishes if you say no to specific sexual activities?”

These questions don’t fit in to the 15 minute appointment providers have with students in a clinical setting; especially if the training or programs to support these questions doesn’t exist (3). Shifting the Paradigm misses the mark by calling this primary prevention and proposing it without mention of proper training for providers.

Revisiting Individual Models

Shifting the Paradigm makes several attempts to provide tangible primary prevention exercises for college health educators to use with their students. One of the first interventions is “[to] facilitate conversations about sex that focus on individual choices along the continuum of sexual activity… [to] identify and popularize healthy sexuality that respects gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.” Another intervention encourages educators to distribute “10 ways young men can prevent sexual violence” to fraternities and other male dominated organizations on campus.

These are both classic examples of the Health Belief Model – an individualized public health model that assumes no social interaction, and demands rational behavior (4-5). This model and proposed intervention fails to understand one important issue in human behavior: people are not rational; they do not make decisions in silos and are easily influenced by unconscious factors.

Dan Ariely helps make this clear in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Dr. Ariely conducted a study with Berkeley undergraduate students who underwent a variety of sessions in different orders answering questions about sexual and moral decisions. In one session students predicted their sexual and moral decisions while in a cold, dispassionate state. In another, they did the same but while in a hot, aroused state.

“In every case, our bright young participants answered the questions very differently when they were aroused from when they were in a ‘cold’ state….when participants were aroused they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high as they had predicted when they were ‘cold’.” (6)

The results go on to demonstrate how in a cold, rational state, the men involved in this study respected women. They thought they understood themselves, their preferences and what actions they were capable of. These men, like many young college students, underestimated their reactions to arousal and the outside environment. It does not make these participants social deviants; it proves that human behavior is irrational.

This study is critical to understanding that college students do not make decisions in a vacuum; they are highly influenced in their vulnerable state of transition from high school to higher education. While Shifting the Paradigm encourages discussion about respecting gender and being aware of pop-cultures messages, the reality is college students are having good, bad and ugly sex without the influence of these conversations in the bedroom.

Could We Get a Little Buy In?

Contributing authors to Shifting the Paradigm express their hopes for primary prevention in the preface: “[primary prevention] must reach the same level of efficacy and adoptions as programs that respond to its consequences.”

Shifting the Paradigm authors makes 2 assumptions with this statement: 1. it assumes the reader is on a campus that is effectively responding to consequences of violence and 2. The reader understands the levels of public health prevention and the concept of moving upstream. These are erroneous assumptions considering many campuses are failing to make the basic responses to victimization work on campus. According to a 2005 National Institute of Justice report, of the nations institutions of higher education less than half listed a contact phone number for students who have been sexually assaulted that was accessible after “normal” business hours – when most assaults happen (7).

This demonstrates the lack of understanding Shifting the Paradigm authors have in regard to higher education organizations. If the authors had followed organizational development theory, they would have understood that one of the keys to mobilizing an organization is to know your community priorities. For example, by pairing a health issue with other priority issues you can maximize the potential for community action (8).

Shifting the Paradigm fails to speak the language of higher education and answer the questions critical to administrators in the organization. Administrators hold the keys to what college health professionals need – support from the institution: both financially and politically. Why should higher education administration care about sexual violence? How does it impact the organization and the students we serve? How much money will it save us if we invest in these programs? College health educators need to make the connection between health and academic success in order to speak the language of our stakeholders (9). Without this connection, administrators will fail to see the value in sexual violence prevention.

Moving Past Shifting the Paradigm

The authors and consultants for the ACHA toolkit neglected to produce a sound document for their intended audience. They sent out a grab bag of deficient, archaic and inconsistent tools for overburdened campus professionals to toss out at the end of the day. It is unfortunate that this opportunity to speak to higher education about primary prevention was wasted with the promotion of such tools as “discussion starters” and “screening interventions”. The lack of outcry from ACHA members isn’t surprising; many of them lost value in the document before reading it. In an effort to move forward and adopt a primary prevention approach to sexual violence, new theories must be brought to the table.

Smedley and Syme explain in their article Promoting Health: Intervention Strategies from Social and Behavioral Research, “It is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behavior easily when so many forces in the social, cultural and physical environment conspire against such change.” Smedley and Syme, along with many others in this field support the need for a social and behavioral approach to violence prevention (6,12-18). Shifting the Paradigm could benefit from considering two specific social science theories: Organizational Development (OD) and Fostering Healthy Norms (Norming) (8, 16-18, 20-21,). The finale of this post will provide empirical data and examples in support of using OD and Norming to address primary prevention of sexual violence on a college campus. It is vital to know these methods lend themselves concurrently however; creating an environment open to change from the top down should be the first step.

Stimulating Change

Community mobilization around a specific issue can be challenging. It requires much from the agent of change in order to move an organization toward a new behavior (16). ACHA members fit into the role of ‘agent of change’ and learning to speak the same language is a gateway to common ground. ACHA members would benefit by cultivating relationships with professional leaders on campus; one great approach is to appeal to the individual’s self-interest, showing how their participation in your cause can aid in achieving their own goals and objectives (23). Utilizing OD theory to foster shared goals and motivation among members of the institution will aid in the change process (16-18). Organizational Development theory encourages community and organizational change while taking into account the culture, organizational climate and capacity (16). Systematizing an institutional change utilizing the culture, climate and capacity is critical to avoid simply replicating what other schools do without evidence of an effective intervention.

To mobilize an institution to address sexual violence through primary prevention, three key issues should be addressed (17).

  1. Define the community: Develop an understanding of the chain of command within the institution. Set up individual interviews with key players and learn who the movers and shakers behind decisions made on campus might be.
  2. Assess and work with the community’s capacity for mobilization: Are their experienced professionals on campus who are researching or addressing sexual violence currently? What is the history of task forces or committees to address sexual violence appointed by upper administration? Look for current action within the institution and work with those players to assess the ability to move upstream in addressing sexual violence.
  3. Understand the community agenda and select the right issue: ACHA members should look at the mission of the institution and assess how sexual violence might impact that mission. This could be done by reviewing national and local data regarding sexual violence. Sources may include the ACHA National College Health Assessment, Jeanne Clery Act Reports, local police and prosecutor’s office data and qualitative data from local organizations that work in the area of sexual violence. The impact sexual violence has on matriculation, retention, and graduation could be a critical piece of information for upper administration. Successfully selling primary prevention of sexual violence can be achieved if you pair the institution’s goals and objectives with your topic area goals and objectives.

Fostering Healthy Norms

There are 5 damaging norms that impact attitudes and beliefs about sexual violence (12). These norms are:

    1. Women: limited roles for and objectification and oppression of women

    2. Power: value placed on claiming and maintaining power (manifested in power over)

    3. Violence: tolerance of aggression and attribution of blame to victims

    4. Masculinity: traditional constructs of manhood, including domination, control and risk-taking

    5. Privacy: notions of individual and family privacy that foster secrecy and silence.

ACHA members can address these norms by strategically promoting normalizing messages about positive female roles, egalitarian relationships, men standing up to aggression, downplaying negative risk-taking, and engaging citizens. The social norms approach provides tools for increasing perceived support to take action to address health and violence behaviors (20). The key is to create and sustain healthy norms within the institution and surrounding community (12).

We know that one of the critical places students’ receive and trust messages is from health care providers (26). A mandatory training with continuing education credit for all health care professionals on campus (in the student health center and otherwise) could help foster norms at an individual level. This curriculum would consist of trust building, using positive sexuality language and sharing healthy relationship guidance in a clinical setting (12-13). Providers would be expected to use the tools learned in this curriculum with patients to build trust and promote the health center as a safe, positive place to receive information and services. In order to implement this type of care, health care providers will need more time with patients. A critical role for ACHA members will be advocating for longer visits with providers and promoting efficiency in scheduling visits (3, 12).

The second component to this ‘Fostering Healthy Norms’ approach is to develop a marketing campaign that is interactive and promotes positive environmental change. Studies suggest that the social norms approach to sexual assault prevention is a promising practice that is worthy of further attention and research to determine its effectiveness (20). For example, at James Madison University a campaign designed to change men’s intimate behavior towards women was implemented. Data demonstrated significant increase in the percentage of men who indicated “stop the first time a date says no to sexual activity” and a significant decrease in the percentage of men who said “when I want to touch someone sexually, I try and see how they react.” (20). Other campaigns have demonstrated similar findings, making social norms marketing campaigns a promising practice in prevention of sexual violence.

No Substitute for Planning

The American College Health Association’s toolkit, Shifting the Paradigm: Primary Prevention of Sexual Violence would be a greater resource if the role of health and its impact in higher education was all ready established. However, without this critical collaboration, no campus is ready to implement tools that have not been grounded in research. The interventions fail to speak the language of higher education as an organization or foster change in the current climate.

In an effort to design a replicable toolkit, ACHA would have done well to offer planning and evaluation tools for primary prevention of sexual violence on college campuses. Saltz and DeJong’s comment in ‘In Reducing Alcohol Problems on Campus: A Guide to Planning and Evaluation’, “Simply replicating what other schools are doing is not a substitute for sound planning.” Utilizing Organizational Development theory to stimulate change from the top down, followed by a comprehensive implementation of Fostering Healthy Norms allows flexibility to accommodate the institution’s individuality and take research to practice.


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