Mason Strawn knows the stereotypes about boys who grow up in small towns like his: Almost inevitably, they will discover conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and “go down a deep rabbit hole” that can lead to toxic masculinity. As a middle schooler in Butler Township, he said he followed a similar path. 

His views on masculinity began to gradually shift as he was leaving high school, but when he came to Point Park University in fall 2019, he saw a greater change. He learned from more diverse perspectives at the university — located in a much larger city than his hometown — and became more engaged in sexual violence prevention through the trainings he received as a student employee.  

“I was a very different human being than what I am now,” Strawn said of his freshman-year self. “Masculinity is something that you can have, but you need to identify the toxic side of it, and that’s the side you stay away from as much as possible.” 

Not all men on campus, though, receive the same level of training or share that willingness to learn. Strawn’s friend, Jake Dabkowski, remembers a male student cracking jokes behind him while they received their freshman orientation on sexual violence. Just as bad, Dabkowski said, was that no one stopped him.

From left, Point Park University students Mason Strawn, Jake Dabkowski and Antonio Rossetti work in the Point Park Globe student-run newsroom, Nov. 14, 2022, at the school’s downtown Pittsburgh campus. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Several men across Pittsburgh college campuses spoke with PublicSource about the ways they and their male peers can prevent sexual violence. While some men in college are very attuned to this responsibility, there are powerful counter currents that prevent others from joining the fold, such as controversial or misogynistic internet icons; social circles that fail to hold perpetrators accountable; and a lack of awareness of, and effective education about, the problem. 

But when given the right tools, men in college are often most capable of stopping their peers’ sexually violent behavior, according to an August report from It’s On Us, a national nonprofit focused on college sexual assault prevention. More than 90% of sexual assaults on college campuses are committed by about 5% of the male student population, according to the report, suggesting that the majority of men could wield great influence.

“It’s a big matter of, like, holding each other responsible, helping each other be more knowledgeable,” Strawn said. “No one wants to be the outlier that says something first. It’s like being in a crowd and being like, ‘Who’s with me?’ and then you don’t want to be the first voice that speaks out. But you have to be.”

While female students are more likely to be victimized, 9.3% of male students experience sexual violence as well, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Opening up and rebuilding trust 

At the University of Pittsburgh, Alex Hodge serves as president of the Interfraternity Council [IFC],  which represents 19 fraternities. He believes prioritizing sexual violence prevention as a leader is important for the work to resonate with the rest of Greek life. He’s learned that discussing the issue, and getting men to open up, isn’t easy.

“I think everybody wants to see themselves as the good guy in the situation,” he said. “I think the difficulty of the conversation is the introspection to look at yourself and say, ‘What are my behaviors, and how can those change?’”

Once a semester, an official with the Title IX office will typically come to a “family dinner” with presidents of the fraternity and sorority chapters and members of IFC’s executive board. There, the group learns how to lead 10 conversations about sexual violence within their chapters during the academic year. Overall, the discussions have fostered growth within the Greek community, Hodge said. 

“There’s still going to be people that don’t show up to chapter meetings, and that don’t want to learn about this stuff. But we do try our best to engage with as many students as we can,” he said. 

Alex Hodge, center, the new president of the University of Pittsburgh’s Interfraternity Council, talks with other Greek life members during a flag football tournament to benefit local food banks on Nov. 13, 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Hodge became president amid controversy over a now-deleted Instagram statement from predecessor Michael Liu. In his statement, Liu called a recently reported assault of a female student “sickening” but said it shows that “anyone, including you or me, has the capacity to conduct harmful behaviors whether that be under the influence of a substance or out of desperation,” according to The Pitt News.

After Liu resigned, Hodge contacted chapter presidents to say the statement — which he told PublicSource was well-intended but poorly executed — does not reflect the IFC’s values. Greek leaders also hosted an hours-long discussion about sexual violence in response to the assault, which Hodge said helped rebuild trust in the fraternities. He estimated that about 400 people attended, as 20% of fraternity and sorority members were required to participate. 

“It sparked the conversation that’s needed to be had,” Hodge said.

‘You promote what you permit’

Jackson Adkins, a second-year lacrosse player at Chatham University, said his upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota, has played a large role in shaping his views on sex and consent. He attended a Unitarian Universalist church, where he learned when he was younger that consent is like asking someone if they’d like a cup of tea — you don’t force them to drink it if they don’t want to. 

His background has made him receptive to the sexual violence prevention training he’s received at Chatham. He participated in the university’s Green Dot bystander intervention program, which teaches students to intervene, create distractions or seek help in situations of sexual and domestic violence. 

He recognizes that some members of his lacrosse team, like other athletes at Chatham, hold harmful, macho beliefs. He tries to make sure his teammates “are keeping themselves in line” as much as possible. What helps, he said, is that Chatham is a small community where men and women often interact. (As of fall 2021, 74% of undergraduate students identified as female.)

Men with those attitudes are “kind of forced to wake up and take a look around and be like, ‘Oh, well, if I keep acting like this, people really don’t enjoy my company,’” he said. 

The team has used this slogan to build their culture: You promote what you permit. That message applies to men’s role in preventing sexual violence, Adkins said. He believes that men need to have conversations about the issue – but even he wishes he knew how to talk about it better.

Jackson Adkins, a sophomore at Chatham University, sits for a portrait on Nov. 17, 2022, in the Jennie King Mellon Library at the school’s Squirrel Hill North campus. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“It’s very easy to mean the right thing and say something that can really set somebody off,” Adkins said. “Something I wish I had better skills and knowledge on is speaking on, relating to and providing support for those around me who need it.” 

Greater awareness deepens responsibility

As an undergraduate, Gaurav Balakrishnan served on a disciplinary committee at Carnegie Mellon University that recommends outcomes for students who allegedly violate campus policies. At the time, he had a limited understanding of the reality of sexual violence on campus, though he had thought about the ways he would prevent it in his social circle. 

Early in his tenure, he dealt with a case involving alleged sexual misconduct. It was intense and difficult for Balakrishnan to sit through. He found a greater sense of urgency and a broader sense of responsibility for prevention. 

After his experience on the committee, Balakrishnan signed up to participate in the university’s Green Dot programming. He now serves as vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion at the Graduate Student Assembly, where he says issues of sexual violence are central to that work. 

“That was an initial exposure, which then made me proactively seek out more conversations and trainings,” said Balakrishnan, a fourth-year Ph.D. student. For him, the experience marked “a move from my circle — what my response is, what my beliefs are, what my thoughts are —  to, ‘What do we do as a community?’”

He believes there are more men on campus thinking about sexual violence prevention than there are conversations happening around the issue. To shift the culture, those conversations need to become more integrated into campus life, he said. He recommended that faculty hold discussions with their doctoral students, who often spend more time in their research groups than they do in the broader campus community. 

“There was a training here and there that kind of got lost in the background,” he said of CMU’s undergraduate prevention efforts. “I had to be proactive to get the material and the conversations and the engagement that I wanted. And I think if I wasn’t in that place of wanting to be proactive, it would be really hard to find those resources.” 

Tackling the ‘whisper network’ 

Divyansh Kaushik, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate at CMU, agrees that creating space for men to discuss sexual violence is crucial. But he’d also like men on campus to speak up when they know of perpetrators or become aware of harmful behavior.

“There is a whole whisper network about everybody,” Kaushik said. “If there is someone who is a bad apple, there are 10 people around them who know that that’s the case.”

At Point Park, Dabkowski has seen that network in action — and the pushback it can get. Some of his peers have continued to associate with people accused of sexual violence, he said. 

“I think that it starts with men listening to that and realizing, ‘This is so prevalent. A: I’m not going to continue the cycle, but B: I’m going to make a point to push back,” Dabkowski said.

“Education is really important. I think calling people on their bullshit is important.”

Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.