Sacramento-area study indicates you can coach young men to respect their girlfriends

03/25/2012 12:00 AM

03/25/2012 2:15 PM

Attention, teenage (and grown-up) boys: Calling girls "b–––––s" as a friendly greeting is not cool. Nor is commenting on girls' breasts, boasting of your sexual exploits or telling girls they're ugly and stupid.

These facts are lost on an alarming number of teenage boys, studies show. Where that type of behavior is common, psychologists say, an environment is created that condones abuse – including more obvious forms like pressuring girls into sexual acts or physically beating them.

So schools around the country have started counting on athletic coaches to give boys the message.

Now, a study conducted with more than 2,000 local teens in Sacramento schools has demonstrated that the approach is working – it gets more boys to step in and stop degrading behavior among their friends.

"Coaches are important role models for young men and are very powerful messengers," said Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Davis.

Teen dating violence is common. Nearly half of teens ages 13 to 18 who have been in a relationship say their boyfriend or girlfriend was inappropriately controlling with them, according to national surveys commissioned by Liz Claiborne Inc. through its Love Is Not Abuse program.

Almost one in three say they've experienced physical or sexual abuse, or threats of physical abuse. And one in 10 have been subjected to verbal abuse.

Miller is the lead researcher of the new study, published online today in the Journal of Adolescent Health, that looked at how one prevention program, Coaching Boys Into Men, worked in 16 Sacramento County high schools between 2009 and 2010.

In half the schools, coaches were trained by the local nonprofit Women Escaping a Violent Environment, or WEAVE. They then led weekly discussions with their male athletes about how to treat women respectfully and intervene if they see a friend acting abusively.

In the other schools, the training and coach-led discussions did not take place. Male athletes in all the schools (with their parents' permission) took an anonymous survey on their attitudes about how to treat girls and what constitutes abuse, both before and after the sports season.

Miller said "an astounding" 18 percent of the boys said in the surveys that they had engaged in abusive behaviors with a girlfriend within the past three months. The most common abuses were verbal and emotional, such as telling friends about what they'd done sexually with their girlfriend, calling their girlfriend names like ugly or stupid, or telling her whom she could hang out with.

At the end of 11 weeks, the Sacramento County boys who received the full Coaching Boys Into Men program reported doing less of those things, though the change wasn't big enough for scientists to consider it meaningful.

The big effect was on boys intervening to stop their peers from degrading girls. Compared with athletes who didn't have the conversations with coaches, boys who did were significantly more likely to say they had spoken up recently to stop disrespectful behavior.

Strikingly, boys who hadn't gone through the program said that by the end of the 11 weeks they were actually doing less to intervene than they had before.

"So without such prevention programs, these inequitable and degrading attitudes might actually get worse," Miller said.

Research aside, athletic director and football coach Ron Barney has seen firsthand the program's effect at Mesa Verde High School in Citrus Heights.

"I've noticed an immediate change on our campus," he said.

Barney recalled getting "really ticked off" when he heard "a good guy" call some girls "b–––––s" as a nickname. When he asked the girls if it bothered them, they replied, "Oh yeah, but that's the way they talk, coach."

He hears that language less since the program started.

The phrase "boys to men" has even become like code among Mesa Verde athletes for: "What you're doing is not OK."

Now if a boy says something demeaning to a girl, "People will walk up to you and say, 'Boys to men,' " said junior Chris Worthey-Reed, a wrestler and football player. "It really influenced a lot."

That's exactly the idea behind the program's focus on helping student athletes – and coaches – be more than passive bystanders when they see harmful behavior taking place, said Miller.

"You start to shift the norms in a community, whether it be a school or a sports program," she said. "Without those (intervention) skills, coaches and students tend to be silent, and that silence is interpreted as approval."

The study is over, but WEAVE is still offering the Coaching Boys Into Men program to any high school that wants it. Barney aims to bring it to all nine high schools in the San Juan Unified School District, where he is athletic director.

"If you're respecting each other with language, you might respect each other with everything else too," he said.

Though you can't know what goes on behind closed doors, Barney added, "I know our males are treating our females better because of the program, and it's probably stopped things from occurring that might have occurred."

Coaching Boys Into Men was created by Futures Without Violence, formerly the Family Violence Prevention Fund, in San Francisco. The program materials are free to download at www.


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