Want to Build a Future Without Sexual Violence? Start With Middle School Boys

Supermajority Education Fund

January 15, 2020

A new study has found evidence that supports there’s a promising way to build a future without sexual violence: Talking to young boys honestly and openly about gender violence. In a new study published on Jan. 13 in JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a physician and chief of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, researched ways to prevent gender-based violence and teach gender equity among middle school boys. 

Miller’s study evaluated the effects of a violence prevention program called “Coaching Boys Into Men” on just under 1,000 male athletes in Pennsylvania between 2015 and 2017. The idea for the project emerged from “a larger effort to engage men and boys in stopping violence against and girls,” she told Supermajority News. Miller has tested similar programs among high schoolers in California and with cricket coaches in India.

Miller said she “did not expect this to be an effective program with middle school,” because the coach-athlete relationship between these students and their coaches is not the same as the one between athletes on varsity teams and their coaches, and also because middle school programs are often shorter and more fluid.

“I honestly expected to be telling the violence prevention field, ‘Let’s focus on high school.’ I was just obviously, wonderfully thrilled that we have something tangible to say I was wrong,” Miller said.

The Coaching Boys Into Men program tested in the study involves coaches presenting scripted discussions to their players that are about 10-15 minutes long once a week throughout the athletic season. The program started with discussions on acceptable language, including a focus on sexist and homophobic language. By mid-season, the program moved onto cyberbullying and cyber abuse within relationships. The program stressed that the boys in the room could take a leadership position in preventing gender violence. 

“As an athlete, you have a role in interrupting disrespectful and harmful behavior, you have the skills to intervene,” Miller told Supermajority News. “It’s a really unique program in that it combines challenging harmful masculinities, simultaneously positive bystander behavior.”

Miller says the research showed that the program was successful in reducing gender-based violence among middle school boys. “I am totally floored with our results because what we’re finding is an even greater increase in positive bystander behavior,” Miller told Supermajority News

Miller also pointed out that two-thirds of the study’s sample (meaning middle school boys) were starting to engage in dating behaviors and, “at the year followup there’s a 75% reduction in dating abuse perpetuation.”

The next step that should logically follow from her research, Miller said, is figuring out what it takes to implement programs like Coaching Boys Into Men on a larger scale since it turns out middle schoolers are ready for these conversations as they start dating. 

“The kind of malleability in terms of middle schoolers is important. They’re hungry for this information,” Miller told Supermajority News.

Read the full study, published by the JAMA, here.