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.
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.
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.