Student advocate: Back of a group of students with arms around each other

Sometimes, attending to the unwanted “details” of our social culture—like a negative stereotype or an offhand comment—can feel like an unnecessary luxury. We may feel it is more important to address violence and coercion directly. But those everyday negative interactions provide camouflage for violence and coercion. When disrespect and disregard are normalized, it becomes more difficult to see them escalating into behaviors that are undeniably harmful.

In contrast, when communities expect respect and mutuality, it is much easier to spot behaviors that go against that norm. By challenging casual disrespect when we see it—and setting up conversations so that disrespect does not emerge in the first place—we can build communities where everyone expects to be treated well. Students, faculty, and staff can all ensure that everyday conversations reflect core community values of respect and kindness.

A positive culture is the best protection against sexual violence. Cultural and organizational change may seem like an ambitious goal, but the evidence shows that it’s achievable. That’s according to Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway Business, 2010), by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, which examines individual, organizational, and societal transformations.

This means that even small actions can have a big impact in building a safe, supportive campus culture. By ensuring that their conversations about romance, sex, and social life are respectful, students can help to dismantle “the cultural scaffolding” of assault. Individual students can transform campus culture by subtly shifting the tone of conversations with their peers. Faculty and staff can support and praise students who strive to build more respectful conversations, and they can model it themselves.

Here’s how to get started

Two girls walking and talking

  • Students can reduce “ambient pressure”—a feeling that you must act a certain way in order to fit in—by modeling that students make diverse choices about social life.
  • Similarly, faculty and staff can ask questions that open up new options for student conversations. Avoid assumptions that all students are behaving the same way, and give students opportunities to share their diverse social choices with one another.
  • If you hear students engaging in disrespectful, stereotyping, or pressuring conversations, intervene. Ask questions of your own that invite kinder and more thoughtful discussion.
  • At an institution, work to define and share a clear vision for what you want campus culture to look like. What are your values, and what concrete steps can you take to live them out?
  • Encourage student groups and communities to identify their own core values, and to plan events and interactions that reflect these values.
  • Cultivate a shared “growth mind-set”: the belief that the effort to build a positive culture will be effective and worthwhile, and that setbacks are part of the process.
Middlebury Resources
Get help or find out moreArticle sources

Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Armstrong, E. A., Hamilton, L., & England, P. (2010). Is hooking up bad for young women? Contexts, 9(3), 22–27.

Borsari, B., & Carey, K. B. (2000). Effects of a brief motivational intervention with college student drinkers. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(4), 728.

Carmody, M. (2005). Ethical erotics: Reconceptualizing anti-rape education. Sexualities, 8(4), 465–480.

Gavey, N. (2005). Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. London and New York: Routledge.

Gavey, N., & Senn, C. Y. (2014). Sexuality and sexual violence. In D. L. Tolman & L. M. Diamond (Eds.) APA Handbook on Sexuality and Psychology: Vol. 1. Person-Based Approaches (pp. 339–382). Washington, DC: APA Press.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway Books.

Strang, E., & Peterson, Z. D. (2013). The relationships among perceived peer acceptance of sexual aggression, punishment certainty, and sexually aggressive behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(18), 3369–3385.

Wade, L., & Heldman, C. (2012). Hooking up and opting out. Sex for Life: From Virginity to Viagra, How Sexuality Changes Throughout Our Lives, 129–145.

Wetherill, R. R., Neal, D. J., & Fromme, K. (2010). Parents, peers, and sexual values influence sexual behavior during the transition to college. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(3), 682–694.