The Lenny Interview: Bobby Eckstein, Sexual-Assault-Prevention Educator

Meet the man fighting rape culture on campus.

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When I got to my second college, considerably more liberal and touchy-feely than the first, the play was replaced by an intimate conversation with our resident adviser (only ten months older than I was and not certified in anything besides ripping sweet bong hits). To be fair, he did a good job capturing the complexities of consent, explaining that rape doesn't just mean being held down in a dark alley. But we were too hot-to-the-touch and buzzing to listen, staring at each other with wet mouths because sex was the topic at hand.

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Needless to say, this dialogue didn't prepare me for the experience of being assaulted 15 months later. Not only was I unable to speak about what had happened to me, but I was hardly able to identify it. Now I make reference to it about once a day, as if to make up for the eight years when the words sat heavy in the place where my ribs meet. I sometimes wonder what would have been different if I had been more educated. I sometimes wonder what would be different if he had been, too — encouraged to ask questions and check for signs of life.

I was experiencing the fallout of "outing" myself as an assault survivor acutely at this time last year. I was so deep in my fear and shame I didn't know if I would ever find my way back out. Talking, writing, the acts that have historically freed me, had made me feel more imprisoned than ever. Imprisoned by judgment, public reaction, and still, maybe forever, guilt.

Robert Eckstein walked into this abyss. We were introduced by a mutual friend who had told me about Robert a.k.a. Bobby's work as a prevention educator. Our dialogue didn't just enlighten me about the challenges of creating a curriculum around consent. It also gave me hope: that there were gentle men armed with information, men who could teach a new crop of boys to wield their power responsibly. Talking to Bobby, even if it was about stats and facts and figures, was encouraging and healing. He is one of the figures who have transformed my understanding of this issue, made me feel like part of a mighty many and not just one of a broken kind.

Recently, he joined me on Skype from New Hampshire, still bundled in a flannel from cutting down his Christmas tree that morning, to talk about the work he does and his hopes for the future of sexual politics and campus safety.

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Lena Dunham: For our readers who are just learning about your work: what do you do, Bobby?

Bobby Eckstein: I'm a senior lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, and I have a split appointment between the department of psychology and the justice-studies program. At the University of New Hampshire, I'm part of a group called the Prevention Innovations Research Center. We're a multidisciplinary research group that has a primary focus on the prevention of sexual assault, relationship abuse, and stalking. Right now I think we've got 15 members, and we borrow from all different departments around the campus. There are psychologists, sociologists, women's-studies professors, communications professors, some attorneys, and then also some practitioners who work directly in the field with survivors.

I think my fancy title there is lead trainer and curriculum-development specialist.

LD: Oh, cool! So with Prevention Innovations, you're educating both young men and young women on campuses. Can you talk a little bit about the two-pronged approach: talking to young women and talking to young men, and how those two modes intersect?

BE: The program that we're the most well known for is called Bringing in the Bystander, and I'm one of the co-authors of that program. Bringing in the Bystander uses a bystander-intervention strategy to try to prevent sexual assault.

We talk about preventing sexual assault before it happens, feeling comfortable intervening if you see something that looks a little uncomfortable, or if you see that somebody is being put in a position where they feel a little bit uncomfortable, but also knowing how to intervene after, so knowing how to listen to a friend who is voicing concerns about being in an unhealthy relationship or being assaulted, being aware of resources, knowing what to say and what not to say to survivors. We talk about sexual-assault prevention and relationship-abuse prevention from a before, during, and after vantage point.

One of the things that was unique about bystander intervention when it started, and now I think it's become a little bit more of the norm, is that it attempts to train women and men at the same time, with the same program. Historically, sexual-assault prevention and relationship-abuse prevention was very gendered, in that women were basically taught how to stay safe, how not to get into dangerous situations, even more traditionally taught self-defense, things like that. Sometimes the old men's programs were around empathy building, or around being more respectful toward women in a general sense. None of that was really working. 

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As you can imagine, when you start talking about teaching women to be safe, there's a very fine line between victim responsibility and victim blaming. When you talk to young men and you teach them to not be a rapist, quote unquote, a lot of young men are going to enter that being somewhat defensive. I don't know if men should be defensive around that message, but it's understandable that a 17-year-old, 18-year-old, 19-year-old guy who's never sexually assaulted anybody might become defensive, if that's the primary message.

With bystander-intervention training, what we say is that rather than targeting men as potential perpetrators, targeting women as potential victims, we have a responsibility to target everybody in a community, regardless of gender, to be more aware of what sexual assault looks like.

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So much of what we do is sexual assault and relationship abuse 101, talking about power and control, talking about rape culture, talking about the cycle of abuse.

LD: I remember in college hearing girls say things like "Oh, he gets sleazy with girls when they're drunk" or "Oh, she's got a really controlling boyfriend," and not recognizing that those are two major red flags that could lead to really dark stuff and aren't just a quirky detail of a person's personality. 

BE: Exactly. I think we're all so desensitized to all of those behaviors that surround sexual assault and that surround relationship abuse. If we become more aware of them, we trust in our ability to say something if we see something.

LD: In the past few years, we've seen this huge dialogue spring up around campus assault. Am I right in thinking it's not that the problem's gotten worse, it's that we've become much more aware of it?

BE: I think in some ways the problem has probably gotten better. Sometimes it's hard to tell. The data is all over the place. I know this is such a trite thing to say, but the fact that we're talking about it as much as we do is a good sign. Some of my colleagues have been working on college campuses for decades. I know it gets so difficult, and I know we still have such a long way to go, but it can be really encouraging talking to people who have been doing this work for a long time, because as bad as the stories are now, when you hear how bad the stories were and how little was done about it, I actually think things are getting quite a bit better.

This is an aside: I teach a forensic-psychology class that's about a lot of different things, and when we talk about sexual assault in that class, I talk about rape culture, and nobody really bats an eye anymore. People are used to what that term means. The amount of growth we've made in the last ten years is pretty remarkable, and I think it's transcended women's-studies classes.

LD: You said something to me the first conversation we had. I'm not phrasing it right, but you were like, "We have to remember that sexual assault hurts everyone. It doesn't just hurt women; it hurts the men who do it and who break boundaries." I wonder whether you could speak to the kinds of experiences you've had with young men who have either committed a sexual assault or are worried they have committed a sexual assault, and how that affects them and whether they recognize it. Obviously, my goal isn't to humanize all the attackers, but I think it is important to remember that we're dealing with a lot of young people here. A lot of scared young people.

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BE: I've never really had an instance of a male disclosing to me that he committed an assault. With my role at UNH, I don't work with the conduct system in any way, so I've never had a man in front of me who is in danger of getting kicked out of school. What I see more is, at the trainings we have, men who will sometimes ask questions around either something that maybe they did, or something that one of their friends did. Sometimes I think that question is coming from [them feeling] "I may have done something, and I feel really badly about it." Other times you get the sense that they're challenging a little bit and almost trying to figure out what they can get away with. That can be really tricky. For us, when we talk about what I like to call the perceived gray area, because I think things are less gray than people make them out to be.

LD: Yeah, I think so, too. I get driven crazy by the conversation of the gray area, because I'm like, "It's not that gray." That doesn't mean that everyone who crosses it is an evil, demonic villain, but it does mean that by continually talking about how confusing it is, we muddy women's efforts to understand what's happened to them.

BE: Perfectly said. It's funny. We do prevention work, and we do the bystander piece that I was talking about, and we have a small part of our program that is about consent. I think we need to expand that consent part. The good consent programs that I've seen are really open, maybe sometimes a little bit fun, very sex positive, and I think it takes a different type of educator to be able to talk about sex, to be able to talk about sexuality, to talk about healthy communication; I think that's a different type of work. 

The cliché that we use is you can't just bring us in and check your box that says "OK, our university took care of sexual-assault prevention because we did bystander training." I think it has to be this multi-pronged repeated thing where there's discussions around healthy sexuality, healthy communication. I think so much of what you're talking about is just young people not comfortable talking about sex. People not being comfortable talking to their partners, whether it's a long-term partner or it's somebody that they're hooking up with. I do think there are instances where people are hurt because the person that they're with was incapable of communicating what would be best for both of them.

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LD: I think about this all the time because I have this very concrete example of having been assaulted, but what I'm about to say applied to me and to so many of my friends: we also have had plenty of sex, in college and beyond, that we had just because we didn't feel like we were allowed to back out, or we didn't want to hurt someone's feelings. That wasn't sexual assault because I was there and I was saying, "Let's do this," but I didn't feel like I had the proper words to express what might be a better situation for me on that given day, and my desire to please people and be fun and be engaged prevented me from drawing boundaries.

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What you're talking about, about learning to discuss your sexuality in an open and healthy way, is in so many ways the missing link. Is there anything that you would tell young women about processing their own experiences or helping friends process their experiences?

BE: This is so straightforward, but if anybody ever shares anything with you, believe them. That's the cardinal rule. The second thing is don't feel like you have to do everything for the person. When a friend or a family member discloses that they've been abused or they've been assaulted, I think it's human nature to want to fix things for people that we care about, and what we know is that that's not really necessary. Rather than saying "I'm going to do this for you" or "I'm going to do that for you," what we know is that a really open-ended "Tell me what I can do for you" or "How can I help you?" is a better response. It leaves the ball in their court, in terms of how they want to move forward, when they want to move forward.

We know with young men sometimes, they want to solve the problem by enacting their revenge on the person that did it, and again I think that's with good intentions, but that obviously doesn't help anybody.

LD: My boyfriend's first reaction when I told him, and this is obviously full of love, but he was like, "We should find that guy, and he should be in jail," and I was like, "I love you so much, but at this point, trying to put him in jail is not going to be a helpful experience for me, and it's also not as easy as that."

BE: Then, something really basic is just being aware of resources. One of the things that we know is there are so many great crisis centers immediately in our area, and I think we sometimes make the assumption that younger people are super savvy. But a lot of people just don't know what a crisis center is. What does it mean when they say that it's entirely confidential? What does it mean when it says that you can go there and they're not going to call the police? I think educating ourselves around what the local resources are, where would they go where it would have to be reported, where could they go where it doesn't have to be reported.

I guess what I would recommend to somebody who was coming to terms with this, or is trying to figure out more, is to pick the right person to tell first. Pick somebody [to tell first] who is a good listener, and who is pretty patient, and is empathic. I think telling that first person, if it goes as planned, can make a really, really big difference.

For a lot of people, that first person should be a professional. I like to think it's this way everywhere around the country, but in New Hampshire, we have the New Hampshire Coalition, which is kind of the overarching organization that oversees all of the crisis centers. Over the years, I've gotten to know a lot of the people up there. They're incredible people who do incredible work, and I think most coalitions around the country are the same. 

Lena Dunham is grateful.

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