Haley Tillage, '15

July 10, 2015
Senior thesis reveals student perceptions of sexual violence on campus

If a female rape victim is drunk, is she responsible for her attack? Thirty percent of student respondents here at Richmond say yes — she is partially or totally responsible.

This sentiment is widely considered a rape myth — a socially persistent victim-blaming belief — and those that agree have higher levels of rape myth acceptance, one of three areas measured by Haley Tillage, ’15, in her senior thesis on student perceptions of sexual violence.

Additionally, Tillage asked students how likely they were to intervene in a harmful situation, also known as bystander willingness, and how they interpret and practice sexual consent.

“Men are more likely to believe myths about rape, especially in terms of perpetrator exoneration, which makes sense because our society traditionally thinks about rape on a gender binary,” said Tillage, who completed her thesis for the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department, following a summer internship at Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.

“Social norms are really powerful,” she said. “Even if (a student respondent) knows their friends aren’t going to see their answers, they will still be influenced.”

In other words, a person is more likely to accept a rape myth if they know their peers accept it, too, said Tillage.

To measure bystander willingness, she presented students with a list of situations worthy of intervention and ranked their results according to the number of sexual assault prevention and bystander intervention programs they have attended. She found that most student respondents are willing to speak up to protect their peers.

“People are way more likely to intervene when they perceive that somebody is in imminent danger,” said Tillage. “For situations like witnessing someone verbally or physically threatening their partner in public or hearing a friend say they are going to give someone alcohol to get sex, there were really high percentages of people saying they would intervene.”

On the other hand, fewer respondents said they would speak up if someone was using derogatory language against women or making really sexist jokes within earshot — a testament to the power of social norms.

“We’re not all perfect interveners, we all have obstacles that keep us from intervening even when we want to,” explained Beth Curry, coordinator of sexual misconduct education and advocacy.

Curry leads Spiders for Spiders, a bystander intervention workshop run by students, for students. “We spend a lot of time talking about social, peer, and personal obstacles. And then we come up with realistic solutions to intervening despite these obstacles,” said Curry. Since the program’s implementation last fall, roughly 200 students have completed the workshop, and with Curry's assistance Tillage was able to compare the responses of students who participated to those who hadn’t.

When it came to consent, Tillage found that many of her peers disagreed with or did not practice continual consent — the act of attaining verbal consent for each new intimate or sexual activity — especially when interacting with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

“I think that’s a pretty scary statistic, honestly. There’s been a lot of research that shows that women who are raped by their significant others suffered from some kind of miscommunication on the consent issue,” said Tillage.

While Tillage has since graduated, she is hoping her research will inspire change. “We need to change the way people think, and that kind of change takes time,” she said.

“It’s not just about taking one three-hour training or spending an hour on this in orientation. It’s about putting things in the curriculum and creating those gen-eds. It’s about getting people involved because that’s what makes a difference — long-term time commitments and hearing the same messages over and over.”