June 3, 2012, 10:40 PM
By JAN HOFFMAN
With the current national conversation about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act focusing on adults, the notion of dating violence among teenagers seems an afterthought. But despite years of prevention efforts aimed at high school and college students, statistics around intimate violence and older adolescents are stubbornly grim. As I wrote in today’s story, programs are now skewing even younger: the latest drafts of the act make grants eligible to provide services and education to children as young as 11.
Programs for preadolescents tend to have a solidly preventive focus. But even when “dating” is a hazy notion for sixth-graders, the conversations can feel squirmy and self-conscious. When I was in Boise, Idaho, reporting on the Robert Wood Johnson’s Start Strong program, the activities engaged boys and girls together. I wondered whether boys and girls alike would be more candid if they were separated.
Certainly there are many highly praised programs across the country that strive to do that for girls, some of which I have visited. Would boys benefit from their own, as well?
I watched as Patti Bellan, an eighth-grade health teacher, gave students a hypothetical situation about a boy who had met a girl at a party, who then flirtatiously invited him home. What, Mrs. Bellan asked, were potential consequences? The students ticked off negative repercussions, including sexually transmitted diseases.
One boy said, laughing,“Well, at least he can’t get raped.”
Mrs. Bellan replied, “Both boys and girls can experience sexual and emotional violence.”
The boy shrugged nervously. Awkward!
Men Can Stop Rape, a national organization dedicated to preventing domestic violence and sexual assault, has created a weekly leadership curriculum for boys, called Men of Strength clubs (MOST). Although the 12-year-old program initially focused on high schoolboys, it now has a curriculum for middle schoolers: 40 clubs in eight states.
Unlike Start Strong, MOST programs are only for boys. While older teenagers discuss domestic and sexual violence, the younger ones focus on healthy relationships and anti-bullying interventions. Neil Irvin, the executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, felt boys needed their own safe environment to explore these issues. Meeting without girls means boys talk more openly, he believes, relieving them of some of the burden of feeling they have to say what sounds right in mixed company.
Jamie Fleming, a rape crisis counselor in Beaufort S.C., leads six middle school MOST clubs. “All I had to do was provide food and they showed up,” said Mr. Fleming. But they kept coming back, and it was not just for a weekly slice of pizza.
“I spend a lot of time talking about deconditioning,” Mr. Fleming said. “How violent imagery supports misogynistic thinking and how we take these things as truths.” And so they talk about pornography. “They say, ‘Mr. J., I watch it so I know what to do with the girls,’” Mr. Fleming said. But Mr. Fleming asks them to imagine their mothers or girlfriends as the victims of some of the most aggressive scenes, and then takes them through their gut reactions.
One boy’s teary response, recalled Mr. Fleming, was that “he would want to make sure that the woman could heal from the experience.” Mr. Fleming was quietly pleased, telling the boy, “‘It’s not about getting revenge, it’s about helping the person you care about most.’”
Alex Leslie runs a MOST club at Shaker Heights Middle School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. What do you do, he asked his group, if you see someone being bullied or sexually harassed?
“One boy said, ‘It’s strange how some men think girls belong to them,’ ” Mr. Leslie said. An example: in a crowded school hallway, a boy grabs a girl’s rear end. He framed the scene in different ways: “ What if she looks upset? What if he is someone you know? What if she is?” A lively discussion followed.
I asked Jamal Townsend, 13, a boy in Mr. Leslie’s club, how he would feel if girls could join the group? “I would be shy about talking,” he replied.
The boys I spoke with felt that when they did the right thing — intervening when they saw bullying or harassment — the support from the other MOST members for taking that brave step meant everything to them. Clearly messages are sinking in: props to Alula Hunsen, 12, who said that the group “changed my view on how to treat other people, how to act like a proper gentleman and be respectful toward ladies.”
In Boise, I saw the value of girls and boys in the same room, talking about dating challenges, surprising and educating each other with their differing perspectives. But I was also greatly moved by insights produced in single-sex groups about developing kinder, more respectful behavior toward the opposite sex — and toward each other.
This blog, written by Jan Hoffman, originally appeared on the New York Times Motherlode Blog , where you can visit to submit thoughts and comments.