How can rape be prevented?
It's a heavy question that gets pondered early Wednesday mornings before the school day begins at Whale Branch Middle School, where 11 boys meet to learn what they can do to prevent violence against women.
They are all in the seventh or eighth grade, some look like little boys, but others are 6 feet tall, seemingly closer to manhood than not.
Jeff Spargo, a violence prevention specialist at Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, a children's advocacy and rape crisis center in Beaufort, begins his discussion with the young men by talking about the dominant story of masculinity -- what society says makes a male a man.
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He holds up a picture of the world, which appears to be flat.
"At one time, that was the dominant story," Spargo tells the group. "And you could get in a lot of trouble if you said otherwise."
The counter story to this, of course, is that the world is round. Spargo says the "dominant story of masculinity" -- that tough men fight, that men shouldn't show emotions, that women are to be objectified, that sex is the end-all, be-all -- can incite violent behaviors in men.
Spargo hopes that these 11 boys, who make up the Men of Strength or MOST Club at Whale Branch, will be a counter story, as well.
"The MOST Club is about how to be a man, (and) learning how to be able to communicate better," seventh-grader Alex Garner said.
Hope Haven has collaborated with the international organization Men Can Stop Rape to start up local MOST clubs, a primary prevention program that aims to teach young boys how they can prevent violence against women by helping to redefine society's notion of masculinity.
The boys at Whale Branch go around the circle and share a counter story from their own lives. One boy says that while everyone says sex is something you need to be doing, he disagrees. Another boy says his friends have told him he shouldn't be open about his feelings.
"We look at the 'herd mentality,' where these boys buy into what everybody else is saying," Spargo said. "This club frees (them), and it gives them the safe space to stand up and express what they really believe."
Seventh-grader Michael Easterling has his own take: "We have some students who just act up. They just need someone to follow."
A PUSH FOR PRIMARY PREVENTION
"Not all men are rapists, but most rapists are men," said Christine Smith, a sexual assault outreach specialist at Hope Haven.
Primary prevention of rape was traditionally focused on how a woman can protect herself. She shouldn't walk home alone after dark, shouldn't wear short dresses when she goes out, shouldn't get drunk at parties. She should carry pepper spray with her, a whistle on her keychain, learn self-defense.
"It was telling women to not get raped, when we needed to be telling men to not rape. That history of prevention hasn't been successful," Smith said.
It also had victims blaming themselves if they failed to do or not do something on that checklist.
Nationally, primary prevention has been shifted to focus on teaching boys at a young age how to treat women and express themselves without using violence.
"(The MOST Club is) undoing the traditional views of rape crisis and prevention," Smith said.
In January, Hope Haven hired Spargo as a full-time violence prevention specialist to facilitate the MOST clubs, which are active in Whale Branch Middle School, Hardeeville-Ridgeland Middle School, Beaufort High School and Whale Branch Early College High School. The initiative is being overseen by the Abuse Prevention Coalition, which consists of Hope Haven, Child Abuse Prevention Association (CAPA) and Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse (CODA).
"Primary prevention is essentially programs that are able to affect change in a way that prevents violence from happening in the first place," Hope Haven executive director Shauw Chin Capps said. "It deals with the root causes of gender, sexual, domestic violence and bullying, which is essentially culture and the messages that we send to men and boys about what it means to be a man."
Before joining Hope Haven, Spargo previously worked in various positions in churches, hospitals, schools and the YMCA.
"I've had this growing awareness of this violence that's out there, especially towards women in (the boys') thinking," Spargo said.
As a parent involvement specialist in the school system, he saw a second-grader boy slap his teacher on the behind, with obscenities to follow.
"He was written up, but essentially it was all reactive," Spargo said. "There was nothing to change his perception as to what's going on. The MOST Club is aimed at being preventative to, hopefully, keep them from doing these types of things and to speak up when they see others who do."
Teachers nominate students to become members in the club, and Capps says that while many teachers initially think to nominate "high-risk students" the MOST Club wants a cross-section of the entire school.
"We tell [the teachers] we want your straight-A students, we want your D students. We want those who are never in trouble, and those who are," Spargo said. "Then they take what they've learned and can become an agent for change in their own peer group."
MEASURES OF SUCCESS
Ninety percent of males who take the MOST Club survey say they feel uncomfortable with references to women and how they are objectified.
"They don't speak up and say anything because of the herd mentality," Spargo said. "Boys need to understand that they're not the only ones who feel uncomfortable."
The effectiveness of the MOST Club is evaluated by that survey, which the boys take at the first club meeting and then take again at the end of the school year. The survey assesses a boy's knowledge, beliefs, intentions and behaviors on topics related to masculinity and violence.
One question asks for a level of agreement with the statement, "Violence is an appropriate way to express feelings."
In 2011, the MOST Club reports showed a 23 percent increase in boys stating they disagreed with that statement.
"You can see a change in their belief system, which is what really sustains change and allows for long-term change," Capps said.
While the numbers show progress, Spargo also sees the effectiveness of the club through changes in the boys he works with.
"I've been able to see where some of the boys who have been in the club longer, they say 'He's not a real man because he's cheated on his wife,' " Spargo said. "There, you can already see that kind of change in them."