In the spring of 2015, I interned with the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center (HCWC) as a primary prevention educator. Over the course of my internship, I helped co-facilitate small groups in the middle schools and high schools in Hays and Caldwell Counties, researched primary prevention, and participated in events that were either hosted by HCWC, or were associated with the organization’s mission to end violence in our community. I also worked on putting together a poster campaign for Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. Training in anthropology was useful, as we discussed gender roles and stereotypes embedded within our culture in the small groups I helped co-facilitate.
The Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center (HCWC) is a non-profit organization in San Marcos dedicated to serving victims of abuse in our community. Their philosophy states that “all abuse diminishes or prohibits the full expression of life and growth that is every person’s right” (hcwc.org). While the name might suggest otherwise, HCWC not only serves women, but men and children as well. HCWC is divided into three buildings: The Center for Community Partnership which houses the Development and Community Partnership and Roxanne’s House (the child advocacy center); the Counseling and Resource Center; and the Shelter. The facility is divided into three different buildings with security measures to ensure the safety of the staff and clients.
The Development and Community Partnership building has a very inviting atmosphere that mirrors the compassion of HCWC’s mission. When you walk in the door of the Center for Community Partnership building where I was working, a beautiful glass sculpture of a tree covers the wall. Within the sculpture reads the agency’s mission: “Creating an environment where violence and abuse are not tolerated in our community.” As you walk down the hallway, the first door on the left is the education office where I worked with Brandon and Kiara, the primary prevention educators. The office is very bright, as several windows let in natural light to create a welcoming atmosphere. All of office doors are open, creating an inviting atmosphere that allows for easy communication throughout the day.
In addition to co-facilitating small groups, I participated in a number of events with HCWC as well as outreach for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Recently, HCWC added dating violence to their mantra so, over the course of my internship, we gave many presentations on dating violence to students. I also attended two different mock trials that raised awareness about dating violence and sexual assault. For my internship project, I decided to do a poster campaign for Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April and co-branded HCWC’s logo with the NO MORE campaign. The NO MORE campaign is essentially saying what you want to see “no more” of when it comes to sexual assault and domestic violence. I printed out 195 posters for all of the dorms on campus and gave them to the Residential and Housing Life and also put up several posters around campus in approved posting areas.
One of the goals of a primary prevention educator is to educate on the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships in hopes of stopping violence before it occurs. The primary prevention educators at HCWC have small groups in many high school and middle schools in Hays and Caldwell County that generally meet once a week to discuss topics such as healthy and unhealthy relationships, gender stereotypes, consent, types of abuse, etc. For my internship, I helped co-facilitate groups with both of the educators. On Tuesdays I would help co-facilitate a girls’ group at Prairie Lea and a parenting class at Phoenix, and Thursdays I would help co-facilitate boys’ groups at Lockhart Junior High School and Lockhart High School.
I often discovered that students found nothing wrong with certain unhealthy behaviors that have become normalized in our society. Lauren McCormick (2014) discusses a shift in privacy norms with the usage of social media. She notes the rate of abusive relationship behavior among young people who are active on the internet, which allows their partner access to all kinds of information regarding where they are and what they are doing. Some of the students’ unhealthy behaviors include texting their partner constantly to know where they are and what they are doing at all hours of the day and logging on their social media accounts. This followed the notion that it was a sign of love if their partner was really jealous, or that it was okay that their partner told them who they could and could not hang out with if they were jealous.
These unhealthy behaviors are often the foundation for serious incidences of violence. McCormick (2014:604) claims that “this demonstrates the serious reality that tweens and teens are becoming increasingly more involved in unhealthy intimate relationships, which share many similar characteristics to abusive adult relationships”. The most common “red flag” behavior was that some students believed it was a sign of trust to exchange all of their social media and phone passwords. It was challenging trying to combat these common beliefs and explain that everyone has a right to privacy, to be able to choose who and who not to spend time with, and the freedom to put their phone away without receiving multiple text messages asking where they are and what they are doing. Many times students do not recognize these behaviors as unhealthy because they have never been told otherwise.
To help the students understand how culture and society shapes their views, we did an activity called “hot dogs for breakfast” with the girls at Prairie Lea. We asked if any of them would eat a hot dog for breakfast and all of the students gave a resounding no. My supervisor said this was the usual answer for this activity with only a select few saying they would. When we asked them why not, their typical responses were “it would be gross” or “that’s not breakfast food,” so we challenged them to think about why it was not breakfast food. They mostly said that they learned that hotdogs were not breakfast food from their parents not serving it and the fact that hotdogs are not advertised as breakfast food. The goal of the activity was to get the students to think about how embedded stereotypes are in our culture, even with food. This holds true for the way our culture thinks about what is acceptable behavior for men and women.
Media plays a large role in gender socialization and how our society shapes ideas about masculinity and femininity. Males are often represented as being valued for their action and ability, while the value of females is based on looks. Haboush et al. (2012:669) discusses the sociocultural value of women’s appearances in the United States. Media reinforces these values by portraying “the ideal women as having a very thin body with long legs, light eyes, clear skin and no wrinkles”(Haboush et al. 2012:669). Men are ideally portrayed as muscular and lean or having “success, money, and power…also generally aligned with traditional male norms” (Hobza and Rochlen 2009:127). Challenging these gender roles was quite difficult, especially when it concerned the younger boys’ group. We wanted the students to think about normalized ideas about unhealthy behaviors and gender stereotypes that are learned.
From an early age, masculine and feminine ideals are instilled in children and reinforced through our society . Hanna Goodall (2012:160-163) discusses the media’s inaccurate portrayal of men and women and their influence on young viewers. Goodall (2012:162) references Julia Wood’s claim that “television programming for all ages disproportionately depicts men, particularly white heterosexual men, as serious, confident, competent, and powerful”, and that the media then teach, “boys and men that to be a ‘real man’ means to be powerful and in control.” For the boys’ group, we thought it was important to debunk some of the myths about what boys and girls are supposed to like, and the way they should act since they tended to believe them. My supervisor and I brought magazines that were targeted separately for boys and girls to the boys’ group at Lockhart Junior High, to start a discussion about gender stereotypes. We told them to point out the differences between the boy magazines and the girl magazines to show them how advertising is powerful. The girl magazines tended to have girls posing but not really doing anything and the articles tended to focus on appearances. The boy magazines had many shots of boys in action, whether it was camping, building something, or playing some type of sport. This discussion focused on one boy in particular who was very adamant that only boys like things such as sports, action movies, and video games. He insisted that girls cannot play video games and that boys have some innate knowledge on how to play them. We told him that there are many girls that like to watch action movies, play video games, or sports, but he was not completely convinced.
The idea of masculinity being portrayed in the media, from peers, and even from parents or guardians, gives young men an unrealistic expectation of what it means to “be a man.” Gutmann (1997:297) discusses elements of “male jockeying for power” and references David Gilmore, who “advanced the notion that in many if not most cultures, men, at least, share the belief that men are artificially made while women are naturally born. Thus, men must prove themselves to each other in ways that women do not”. With the group of boys at Lockhart Junior High, we had an issue with them getting into physical fights with their peers. They believed it was a way to show that they were manly. After one of them was placed in In-School Suspension, we spent a day talking about other ways to express their anger with each other. In the comment section on their exit survey, many of the boys put that they learned fighting was not okay. While the gender stereotypes conversation did not really seem to stick, it was comforting knowing that maybe they will think twice before getting into a physical altercation.
With the Lockhart High School boys’ group, we discussed consent, sexual assault, and ideal notions of masculinity that created difficulties for male victims to come forward. Their ideas about men and masculinity really focused on acting chivalrous towards women. Ultimately, they decided that if you thought you were a man, then you were a man. However, their attitudes towards getting into fights seemed more along the lines of a way to prove themselves as men. Our discussions about consent were always engaging. I particularly remember one discussion about the inability to give consent when you are intoxicated. They all agreed that consent was important but some of them were surprised to learn that even if both parties are drunk and say they want to have sex, that it is not consent. We also took time to discuss men as sexual assault victims. They came up with different reasons why it might be hard for male sexual assault victims to come forward, which included society’s ideas about men being strong, tough, and incapable of being raped. The students did not disagree that males could be raped but were surprised to learn that, according to the 1in6 campaign, “1 in 6 men have experienced abusive experiences before age 18” (1in6.org). One comment on the exit survey said that they thought sexual assault discussion was kind of heavy, but necessary. I thought this was noteworthy that this comment kind of reflects some attitudes towards sexual assault. Sexual assault is definitely a heavy subject and hard to talk about, but it is necessary and I was glad they understood.
Over the course of my internship, I found that the small changes were really what mattered. After groups ended, we had everyone in group take an exit survey similar to one we have them take at the beginning of the semester. Unfortunately, there was not much change, which was disappointing. My supervisors explained that the idea is to focus on small change and hopefully the students will really think about everything discussed in group. As Kervin and Obinna (2010:362-374) note, “primary prevention work takes optimism and patience”. While it is the hope of primary prevention educators to really make an impact on these students, not everything is going to change at once. Focusing on the small victories such as the Lockhart Junior High boys’ group saying that they learned fighting does not solve anything, or the Prairie Lea girls’ group understanding how our culture influences even minor things, such as what we consider breakfast food, is important. I always enjoyed the Lockhart High School boys’ group since many of them were eager to engage in discussion. Even though there were challenges in many groups, I enjoyed co-facilitating each group every week. My hope is that, at the very least, some of our discussions stay with them and get them to think about our culture.
Denise Kervin and Jennifer Obinna.
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Gutmann, C. Matthew.
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Haboush, Amanda, Cortney S. Warren and Lorraine Benuto
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Hobza, Cody L. and Aaron B. Rochlen
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- The Internet and Social Media Sites: A Shift In Privacy Norms Resulting In The Exploitation And Abuse Of Adolescents and Teens In Dating Relationships. Albany Government Law Review. 7:591-610