Public Awareness Campaigns

A little while back I discussed how, contrary to the conventional wisdom that they’ve been “proven to work”, anti-rape campaigns aimed at men have zero evidence of effectiveness. I added that this was no surprise, since similar public awareness campaigns have a long history of failure.

That was overly simplistic, as commenters quickly reminded me. Some public awareness campaigns (or things like public awareness campaigns) have a history of spectacular failure. Others have a history of spectacular success. To give a couple of examples:


– DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) is a program in US schools where teachers and police officers spend a couple of hours a week telling children how bad drugs are and giving them techniques to avoid peer pressure to use them. It famously fails to work and in some cases even makes children more likely to do drugs.

Scared Straight is a popular program in which convicted inmates talk to deliquent kids and explain the costs of a life of crime and how unpleasant prison can be. Several studies clearly show that the intervention makes these children actively more likely to become criminals, and is so harmful that “each dollar spent on Scared Straight programs incurs costs of $203.51”. Needless to say there continue to be dozens of these programs all around the country.

– Sex education in schools is famously ineffective. There is a very large body of research showing abstinence-only sex education programs do not make teens less likely to have sex. Research on comprehensive (ie contraception-including) sex education programs is more mixed, and although everyone trumpets the positive results in order to further discredit the abstinence-only programs by comparison, the actual research is more nuanced and less optimistic. The limited effects it does get may work by spreading genuinely novel information (“condoms exist! STDs exist!”) rather than “awareness raising” per se.

– “Diversity training” and “sensitivity workshops” and everything in that category of thing have no positive effects are are often associated with negative effects (for example, after being introduced in companies those companies’ percent of top executives who are minorities goes down)

– A couple of recent studies (1, 2) are converging on the hypothesis that stigmatizing overweight people makes them more likely to gain weight. This is true even when the stigma is delivered in the form of a (presumably more polite) public awareness campaign instead of just an acquaintance calling you a lardass. Although I agree a line can be drawn between “public awareness campaign” and “stigma”, in practice it can sometimes be kind of fuzzy – for example, although most people wouldn’t use the word, it sure seems like the point of “Don’t Be That Guy” anti-rape campaign is to stigmatize rape.


– Several people have brought up MADD’s campaign against drunk driving, which corresponded to a 65% decrease in drunk driving over the past 30 years. However, I can’t find good evidence on whether MADD started a traditional public awareness campaign or just lobbied for changes in various laws and got lots of publicity in the process. I would also note that there have been spectacular and somewhat mysterious decreases in nearly all crimes since 1982 – alternately attributed to rising abortion rates, falling lead rates, and stricter sentencing – and it’s not obvious how much drunk driving is just piggybacking on that success.

– Seat belt use has gone from very low to near-complete, and there is decent evidence that awareness campaigns like Click It Or Ticket contributed to this (fun fact: opponents of mandatory seatbelt laws launched a counter-campaign called “Stick It To Click It Or Ticket”).

– Advertising is kind of like a “public awareness campaign” about a particular product. It obviously works or else companies wouldn’t spend so much money on it.

– Anti-smoking campaigns do seem to lead some people to stop smokingor at least increase calls to stop-smoking hotlines. These are most effective when associated with scary and graphic images – for example, one shows a picture of a man with a hole in his throat after a throat cancer operation. There are a lot of successful public health campaigns along these lines.


It’s pretty hard to draw a consistent “this works, that doesn’t” conclusion from these facts.

Just to give an example, one of the most effective campaigns – anti-tobacco – uses the same strategy as one of the least effective campaigns – Scared Straight. Both try to present very graphic images of the horrible things in store if people do not change their ways. One works great, the other is counterproductive.

To give another, both anti-obesity and anti-drunk-driving campaigns try to employ stigma, but one of them has been very successful and the other has if anything the opposite of the intended outcome.

Some people I talked to about this at the New York Solstice Celebration suggested that product advertising works because businesses have financial incentives to get it right, but other public awareness campaigns don’t because the government mostly wants to signal virtuous effort and has no incentive to design genuinely effective advertising change minds. But some government and nonprofit public awareness campaigns are successful, and I’m betting they’re all hiring the same ad agencies anyway.

Another theory was that awareness campaigns work when there’s a real need for awareness – either the target demographic is literally unfamiliar with the concept in question (for example, people may not have previously been aware the police were cracking down on non-seatbelt-users) or need reminders to keep an option fresh in their minds (Coke advertisements making everyone think about Coke when they’re deciding what to buy). If it’s just stating ad nauseum that some stigmatized action like premarital sex is still stigmatized, it’s not going to do much. But this is disproven by the success of MADD and the stop-smoking campaign, and by the failures of DARE (which very often does teach kids things about drugs they didn’t know before).

The biggest effect I can see is that anything which caters to a captive audience is more likely to be counterproductive. DARE and sex-ed are inflicted on schoolchildren who would rather be doing something else, and a lot of the time it ends up as “this uncool authority figure I don’t like lectures about how me and all my friends are bad people”. Scared Straight programs are usually court-mandated, often as a punishment for past delinquent behavior. Employees are forced to attend diversity training, and once again it may be billed as a “punishment” for saying something politically incorrect. Is it so far-fetched that people forced to suffer through these campaigns will end up resentful, and that resentment will translate into negative feelings about the campaign message?

I’d like to extend the theory to the obesity case and say that, once again, stigmatizing the obese in anti-obesity campaigns causes obese people to associate the negative feelings they get from these campaigns with “eat less and exercise” message. But this proves too much: why wouldn’t the scary disfigured people in the stop-smoking ads make smokers associate their negative feelings with quitting? Perhaps the negative feelings have to be of a certain type for this to work? Anger and resentment, rather than fear and disgust? Questions, questions.

I still don’t feel like I have a good ability to predict the success or failure of any future public awareness campaign. If I wanted to promote the “Don’t Be That Guy” anti-rape campaign, I would point out that it consists mainly of flyers on lampposts etc, so there’s no captive audience nor any reason to consider it a “punishment”. If I wanted to inveigh against it, I’d argue that empirically it offends a whole lot of men who think they’re being binned as potential rapists and so definitely causes the anger and resentment which are the hallmark of a counterproductive campaign. I really don’t know.

I guess part of the reason I remain skeptical of public awareness campaigns is a lingering terror at what it would say about society’s collective sanity if they worked. Think about it. Imagine that TV ads warning people not to do drugs really decreased drug use. Then think about how for the past 30 years, we haven’t been consistently running those ads, but we have been consistently putting anyone who uses drugs behind bars for their entire lives. Imagine if anti-rape ads worked, and only two Canadian cities have ever run them. And no city afaik has ever run ads against child abuse!

I would welcome more examples of public awareness campaigns that clearly succeeded or failed. Post them in the comments. Please exclude ones that measure “success” by surveying people about whether they saw the campaign or became aware of the campaign message – I’m interested in ones that actually change behavior.

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36 Responses to Public Awareness Campaigns

  1. BeoShaffer says:

    I’m not in marketing, but it is my impression that the evidence for advertisings effectiveness isn’t that clear cut. Most of this impression is from various conversions, but this article sums up a lot of what I’ve heard. Most notably, that the feedback companies get about their ads effectiveness is supper noisy, and that the rare rigous attempts to evualate ad campaings often indicate that the ad campaing being examined was ineffective.

    • BeoShaffer says:

      Also, advertising agencies activly discourage empirical evaluation of their work, almost forgot that one.

      • fubarobfusco says:

        Curiously, this isn’t the case with Web advertising, where the same companies offer both advertising and analytics services.

    • mareofnight says:

      Startups for the Rest of Us (a podcast about small online businesses) made this point – that awareness-raising ads aren’t verifiable, and advertisers prefer them because they aren’t. If there isn’t already an expectation of verifiable behavior changes, then verifying that a campaign failed would hurt your career more than verifying success would help it.

      (Not quite relevant, but the podcasters went on to say that online click-through ads aimed at getting people to do some specific action, like make an account or sign up for a newsletter, are the way to go. Or any other form of advertising that can get people to do some action that advances them in yours sales process or gets them on your email list. They had some pretty advanced software tools for finding out which traffic came from where, how far it advanced, and how much they were paying for each sign-up or sale.)

  2. Cyan says:

    “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

    — attributed to William Lever and also John Wanamaker, both of whom were businessmen in the late 19th century

    • Scott Alexander says:

      …we have that same saying in medicine – “Half of what we’re doing is ineffective, we just don’t know which half”

  3. Typhon says:

    Very interesting, as usual.

    « – Advertising is kind of like a “public awareness campaign” about a particular product. It obviously works or else companies wouldn’t spend so much money on it. »

    Do you know of good studies about this ? I’ve been a bit skeptical about the efficiency of advertising for a while. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but I wonder if it works half as well as people who sell it or buy it think it does.
    I guess it also depends on the kind of advertising.


  4. houseboatonstyx says:

    If this entry were some sort of study, I’d suggest controlling for whether the objective has teeth. Seatbelt laws and drunk driving also had police enforcement. Anti-smoking has enforcement by ordinance and local businesses, etc.

    As for the “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign, from my great distance it looks like sending the wrong message — trivializing rape by lowering it to the level of minor un-coolness.

    • Anonymous says:

      If this entry were some sort of study, I’d suggest controlling for whether the objective has teeth. Seatbelt laws and drunk driving also had police enforcement. Anti-smoking has enforcement by ordinance and local businesses, etc.

      But Scared Straight is all about the teeth. The program is basically trying to force your face right up to the teeth and make sure that you get a good long look at how sharp they are. Yet the program actually encourages crime.

      • Tyrrell McAllister says:

        Sorry, that “Anonymous” was I.

      • Exi says:

        I’ve been teaching in high schools for several years now and have been forced to listen to some of these “Scared Straight”-type speakers before. I’ve been watching them with a critical eye, and here is my take:

        Reason suggests that the speakers that get invited to my school are more likely to be speakers with an above-average number of bookings. They get booked for more engagements because they tell their stories with gripping narrative skill. Some unavoidable consequences of this:

        –The criminal protagonist becomes very sympathetic.
        –Suspense builds for most of the talk. (Crime is intense!)
        –Getting caught is not the climax of the story, but only a “darkest hour” followed by a true turning point where they resist a final temptation after getting a chance to turn their lives around.

        The moral seems to be: Crime is not for the fainthearted, but you’d be surprised at how long you can get away with stuff. Don’t get caught the same way I did, but if you do, be sure to turn your life around. You might even become a popular public speaker like me.

        It seems like if we were trying to scare the kids straight, it would be with stories of people who got caught on their very first escapade, and still aren’t sure how it happened, and then got raped in prison after everyone they ever loved disowned them.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        As Exi’s post below suggests, there may be some molars way back there in the future for a few serious persistent offenders. But it’s not like incisors nipping at respectable people all the time — like “No Smoking” signs at work or in restaurants, or numerous police cars likely to give you an expensive ticket at any moment.

        At any particular moment, smoking or neglecting the seatbelt isn’t worth the certain, or seemingly very likely, hassle.

    • Watercressed says:

      Drugs have police enforcement, but DARE was ineffective.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        For DARE to be a counter-example, the police enforcement would have to increase at the same time as the campaign, or the campaign would have to tell uninformed people about the police enforcement, or both.

        Another factor might be, whether the behavior is commonly done in public or secretly (like drugs and crime). And, whether the campaign is against something that is already stigmatized (crime, drugs), or is introducing a new stigma against something that has previously been accepted.

    • Jack says:

      trivializing rape by lowering it to the level of minor un-coolness.

      In fact, that’s what feels like a *good* idea to me. I think the assumption is that people have a stereotype of being raped by a “rapist” who deliberately targets a stranger, but a much, much larger problem is people who think what they’re doing is normal, who think they’re flirting with someone and then pressuring them to have sex when they’re not sure, but which is actually rape. And those people don’t think “sent to jail for 20 years” applies to them, because (a) that only applies to the “bad” people and (b) it’s not happened yet, is it that much more likely to happen next time because they’ve seen a poster?

      But that the theoretically lesser but more likely threat of social disapproval is actually more likely to have an effect.

  5. Douglas Knight says:

    Market researchers, such as IRI, have performed randomized controlled experiments of advertising. Here is a description; P&G figured out which half wasn’t working and cut out both the ads and the research. at greater length

  6. T. Greer says:

    What counts as a public awareness campaign?

    In the 1830s the temperance movement grew its first legs in America. As Daniel Walker Howe describes it in What God Hath Wrought (p. 167-8), a group of temperance activists – usually a group of evangelical preachers and a few reformed alcoholics – would roll into town, set up a wagon in the town center and hold several meetings explaining both the physical and spiritual benefits of abstinence and reduced consumption. They would then get every one who was willing to sign their name to a pledge promising that they would be temperate (or abstinent) drinkers from that time forward.

    The amount of alcohol consumed in the U.S. dropped from 7 gallons per person per year to 1.8.

    IMHO, that is spectacularly successful example of a public awareness campaign gone right.

    I think the reformers of the period would have credited the closing commitment as the most important part of the program. People in the antebellum did not give a crud about “awareness” – they wanted to change men and transform souls. Their goal was commitment and action, not knowledge or awareness.

    P.S. 1 more thought – the temperance movement was largely modeled on the methods of the 2nd Great Awakening camp meetings. I don’t know have the statistics for increased attendance at Church or new memberships on hand, but I suspect those camp meetings are another good example of a successful public awareness campaign. (“Not going to Hell” being the replacement for “not getting sick with cancer/std/heart attack” we see in modern PR campaigns.)

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I tracked down the numbers in this comment. They are the numbers that Howe uses, specifying consumption per adult (15+). He cites Rorabaugh’s Alcoholic Republic. In the text (eg, the graph on page 8), Rorabaugh prefers per capita alcohol consumption, which fell from 3.9 to 1.0 (in 1830 and 1845/1850). Howe got his numbers 7.1 and 1.8 from the appendix (Table A1.2, p233). Either way, it’s a factor of 4, but it makes a big difference if you want to compare to the modern day, where there are few children. (2.0 vs 2.7 in 1975; 200% vs 150% of the 1850 number)

      Here is a discussion of methodologies and competing numbers, but Rorabaugh is the only one who goes back to before the Great Awakening.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps the problem is in assuming that people have such easily malleable value systems. One possible model that seems to agree with the evidence is this: the only thing a public awareness campaign can do is cause you to reevaluate your internal cost-benefits analysis including the information in the campaign.

    DARE: Even including the downsides of drug use, many people find it to be favorable from a cost/benefits standpoint. In some cases you are introducing them to new drugs which they weren’t aware of, which they may additionally find to have a positive net benefit.

    Scared Straight: Scared straight participants are already juvenile delinquents and were already aware of the outcomes of crime. Their revealed preference for crime thus remains unchanged. Of further note, it seems likely that if public awareness campaigns in general work on the “marginal actor” with respect to the intervention, selecting for the people who are not marginal (from the perspective of crime) would be ineffective.

    Sex education: There is almost no one who finds “not having sex” to be beneficial, thus abstinence-only education is unlikely to work.

    Diversity training: Everyone is aware of the issues involved here, thus are unlikely to change much. The fact that there IS diversity training may be new information which makes them more cautious not to be put in situations where they can be accused of sexual or racial preference.

    Overweight people: Overweight people have already made their choice, and new information is likely to be less negative than the social and physical negatives they are already experiencing.

    MADD: First, I am skeptical that much of this was related to public awareness rather than dramatically increased penalties and enforcement. Second, when MADD started many people didn’t realize the negative consequences of drunk driving, so that could be new information that would have changed people’s behaviors. The most likely negative consequences are because of increased enforcement, as getting a DUI is far more likely than injuring yourself or others while driving drunk.

    Seat belts: The laws that were created to make seat belts mandatory were likely unknown by people. Telling them about the negative consequences could be new relevant information.

    Advertising: It’s probable that the most important aspect of advertising is letting you know that a particular product exists. We already know that the product provides a positive net benefit to purchasers, else they wouldn’t purchase it.

    Anti-smoking campaigns: The population of smokers is very large and the effect size we’re talking about here is very small. It could be that they are the marginal smokers who were either not aware of the downsides, or had never evaluated the cost/benefit in light of that information.

    I don’t think this is the perfect explanation, but it certainly seems like a possibility. I would be very interested in someone doing a RCT on public awareness campaigns where, prior to performing the campaigns, they surveyed people to ask whether they knew the information contained in the campaign, and whether they would have changed their behavior over the past year if they had known that information.

    • houseboatonstyx says:


      A relatively pure case might be, the campaign to get people to cough into their elbows instead of their hands. It’s a new idea, has no downside sfaik, and results can be observed directly.

      Of course, whether it actually prevents infection is another issue.

  8. And no city afaik has ever run ads against child abuse!

    Los Angeles did while I lived there. IIRC displays on the side of buses. Picture of scared little kid. Caption was something like “Please stop hurting me, Daddy! Ow! Please stop Daddy!” followed by some tiny print about their anti-child-abuse agency. Which, a new father not in the habit of abusing kids, pissed me off by painting all fathers as abusers.

    • AJD says:

      So, your reaction is kind of interesting to me. Why did you perceive it as painting all fathers as abusers, rather than as conveying the information that some fathers are abusers?

      • Anonymous says:

        What it actually paints is an example of a father as an abuser. That’s how the human mind works, with examples, not with sets. The objection that Karl has is to the fact that the father pictured there is a noncentral example of a father.

        In other words, the problem with those ads is a very well known issue: it’s simply the noncentral fallacy.

        • Charlie says:

          Except it never follows through with the fallacious claim, it just gives the example. Since people can’t read minds, the people who complete the fallacy inside their heads will be confused that some other people don’t think it’s a big deal, and the people who don’t complete the fallacy inside their heads will be confused about the people who do. Communication is hard.

          The trouble is that since humans work on examples, giving examples of abusive parents seems like a really important way of communicating the reality of child abuse. We’d like to reduce misunderstandings, but we also want to use effective methods of presentation, so we’re stuck with a problem.

  9. Vaniver says:

    need reminders to keep an option fresh in their minds (Coke advertisements making everyone think about Coke when they’re deciding what to buy).

    According to Steve Sailer, advertising primarily has demonstrable effects when it gives consumers new information, which seems reasonable to me. Advertising seems like the sort of thing where owner-agent incentives are more misaligned than normal, and so the fact that businesses do it is not all that convincing that it’s useful on the margin.

    And no city afaik has ever run ads against child abuse!

    There was that ad recently which was a child abuse ad when viewed from ~3-4 feet high and something innocuous when viewed from 4-7 feet high, which might count here.

  10. Kaj Sotala says:

    There’s actually a Skeptics Stack Exchange question about “Does ‘raising awareness’ have a meaningful impact?” going on right now: not many answers yet, but you may find this answer linking to a 1984 meta-analysis about the subject to be of interest.

  11. Tom says:

    One example of a public awareness campaign that, to the best of my knowledge, was an outstanding success is the 2007 water saving campaign in Queensland, Australia. This campaign was run during the midst of a severe drought and aimed to reduce personal water consumption.

    There is a study of the campaign available here that someone with access to a university’s journal subscriptions would be able to access. The abstract seems to suggest that the statistics match my memory of the time.

    Perhaps one of the biggest differences between this example and those given in your post is that water conservation during a drought is not heavily politicised. Almost everyone realises that the choice is either to save water or run out!

  12. Randy M says:

    I wonder if there is an active versus passive behaviorial distinction. Ie, some campaigns are trying to get people to never do something, whereas others (mainly advertising) are trying to get people to do something at least once–presumably after we try the Dorritos, the taste and price will be the main determinate of if we continue using it, rather than the advertising. For DARE, people have to continue to say no at every opportunity for the program to be successful. I’m assuming that after trying the drugs the first time, personal experience will washout the influence of the ad campaign, expecially if the user doesn’t experience many of the purported ill effects which may come down the road. Scared Straight could have potential criminals avoid crime, until they try it and aren’t caught, at which case they view themselves as special and uniquely able to avoid the hazards that they were warned about.

    Are studies of these campaigns looking at effectiveness at delying the first experience with the taboo action or item, or of overall rates at some point in the future?

  13. Steve says:

    > And no city afaik has ever run ads against child abuse!

    When I lived in Hawaii, ’round 2000-ish, Honolulu had a “don’t shake your keiki” campaign.

    • Randy M says:

      Public vehicles around here (So Calif) occasionally sport “Don’t abandon your baby” bumper stickers. They are advertising public buildings like fire stations that serve as safe surrender (or similar named) sites. Still, reading the slogan while driving depresses me about the state of humanity.

  14. Doug S. says:

    I think drunk driving became far more stigmatized after the public awareness campaign than used to be. Case in point: the characters in the 1980 song “Same Auld Lang Syne” share a six-pack of beer in a car and then drive off separately.

  15. Desrtopa says:

    I’m skeptical of the ineffectiveness of a stigma on obesity decreasing rates of obesity, if it’s applied in the right way.

    In America, we certainly have a stigma against obesity, but having both made serious (and successful) efforts to lose weight, and watched other people do so, I’ve noticed that one of the major hurdles one tends to face is other people encouraging you to eat more. They’ll tell you “Oh, you have to try some of this!” or “You can make it up!” or “You’re not fat! Don’t worry so much!” The “polite” thing to do is accept the food they’re encouraging you to eat (to do otherwise is something close to a rejection of hospitality,) while the effective weight loss response is to always reject it.

    In Japan, and probably some other countries with similar norms, your peers can criticize *you* for eating too much, tell you things like “you’re going to get so fat!” or “aren’t you supposed to be on a diet?” *without being seen as rude.* In America, someone acting like this is likely to start an argument and then the person they treated this way will start to avoid them, or at least view them adversarially if they can’t escape interacting with them. The fact that you can separate yourself from and draw your social circle in opposition to this kind of social stigma in America makes it totally different from a place like Japan where the stigma is practically universally enforced and inescapable.

    I would be very surprised if this stigma has nothing to do with why people in Japan suffer so little from obesity.

  16. Hilary says:

    An article that might be of interest to you–
    A later (2009) and much more comprehensive (it seems to me) review diversity interventions says this:
    [Author(s): Paluck, Elizabeth Levy; Green, Donald P.]
    “Abstract: This article reviews the observational, laboratory, and field experimental literatures on interventions for reducing prejudice. Our review places special emphasis on assessing the methodological rigor of existing research, calling attention to problems of design and measurement that threaten both internal and external validity. Of the hundreds of studies we examine, a small fraction speak convincingly to the questions of whether, why, and under what conditions a given type of intervention works. We conclude that the causal effects of many widespread prejudice-reduction interventions, such as workplace diversity training and media campaigns, remain unknown. Although some intergroup contact and cooperation interventions appear promising, a much more rigorous and broad-ranging empirical assessment of prejudice reduction strategies is needed to determine what works.”
    (full article available to those with journal access).

    In sum, they reviewed 985 interventions that aimed to reduce various kinds of prejudice (Oddly, this workplace study is not included in their review). They found some evidence that some interventions worked, some evidence that some interventions did not work, and a lot of evidence that most of the interventions were not designed to enable the collection of valid evidence.

  17. Shiyo says:

    You know, in terms of direct anti-rape campaigns *specifically*, the ones with flyers and catchphrases etc, my intuition is that they tend to be ineffective because many rapists don’t actually realize what they are doing is rape (because they think it’s all about strangers in a dark alley and it always involves physical resistance, when it looks more often like taking advantage of a girl so drunk she’s nearly blacked out) and people who do realize what rape looks like get offended because it seems so pathetically obvious (Don’t Rape!) it’s offensive, or because it feels like a scolding when they didn’t even do anything. Even worse, it feels like a scolding from ‘humorless’ feminists, and an unfortunate number of people (certainly the ones you want to target for Don’t Rape campaigns) don’t respect women as much as they do Man Talks (you know – those rare moments of emotional realness with your coaches, dads, father figures etc).

    What I think would be more effective than these prescriptive campaigns are real examples of what people *should* do when they see some sketch hanging around a woman who can barely stay on her feet. Don’t just say ‘don’t rape’ without explaining what rape actually looks like (hint: rarely physical, and committed by all genders) and without actually showing what Decent Person behavior looks like. Get bros to call out other bros if they’re harassing some girl (or guy) when she/he’s plainly uncomfortable – and the same for women, because women are offenders too, just ones no one takes seriously. Get fathers to tell their sons it’s not fucking cool to crack rape jokes, whereas stand-up people respect boundaries. Call out the wolf-whistlers. Stop telling women it’s their duty to monitor the way they dress (as if that actually ever stopped anyone) and start telling people only a fucking loser would harass someone because of their skirt. Remind your friends that just because you find someone attractive and keep pumping Nice Things into them like quarters, they are not candyball machines who have to give you something back. Make sexual assault something that survivors can talk about openly, without feeling like they’re discomforting people or like they’re carrying a dirty shame. Change our culture from the ground up.

    Get people to not just ‘stop raping’, but value enthusiastic consent – because who the hell wants to sleep with someone who isn’t into you? And yet we keep pushing this narrative that all men are horndogs who would do anything for ANY piece of tail, and that’s Just How Men Are so it’s okay for a woman to force herself on one. We keep pushing the idea that women have to hold themselves back (no sex for the first three dates!) or else they’re ‘devaluing’ themselves, as if the woman is a prize that the guy has to beat all these levels to attain and therefore her lack of initial enthusiasm is just a cutesy obstacle, a puzzle to unlock (so dude, just keep at it). We keep pushing this undercurrent that says a girl who gets tipsy actually wants to get laid (‘so how was I supposed to know, she was drunk!’) and not, oh, because she’d like to have fun and hang out with her friends, or because no drinks = no socializing in so many circles these days.

    Don’t just ‘not be a predator’; that’s the very lowest standard for behavior. Be a stand-up guy. Be a decent person. Don’t be That Guy who just laughs uncomfortably when his teammate is all over some 14-year-old, or That Girl who doesn’t want to tell her friend that groping a cute boy’s ass without his consent isn’t so much a surprise compliment as assault. Some flyer declaring “DON’T RAPE” can’t embody all these things.


    As a final thought, the biggest reason why these ‘social change’ campaigns tend not to work for me is because they don’t really explore *why* something happens, they just call for change. Men are Like This, Women are Like This. We talk in generalizations but we don’t actually try to *understand* how these generalizations might have come about, or why the other side might sometimes act the way they do. For example, despite what sitcoms and Hollywood might think, my ‘fat friend’ isn’t coming over to cockblock you ’cause she’s ugly and jealous, she’s coming over because I’ve made a small signal that I would really like her help in getting rid of you in a way that doesn’t offend you, or make you think I’m an utter bitch. Some of that is my own fault as an individual for not being assertive enough (because I hate hate HATE hurting someone’s feelings), and some of that is a valid fear from personal experience that you might flip out, and I would be severely disadvantaged in any physical confrontation with a guy. So what do I do with guys? I tend not to be as straightforward as I want, but rather skirt around their feelings and bow out of the situation as gently and non-offensively as I can. I will say ‘no’, but I’ll say it gently and after a lot of signaling and trying to slink away with my friends, rather than yell NO with a forceful shove.

    I’m sorry if that makes my behavior frustrating for a lot of guys, or if it’s offensive to assume a guy might harm me just because he’s bigger, but I value my safety over someone’s feelings. When a lot of people do this – certainly my female friends do – then it can add up to a culture where guys are looking for that forceful NO and then get confused when confronted with less direct signs, maybe even a ‘nice’ letdown that they think leaves room for hope in the future. And then you end up with ‘oh Women are So Annoyingly Complicated, Men are such Simple and Befuddled Creatures harhar’. That’s why, even though I think it’s so important for both genders to be assertive with their boundaries, I also think we need to better understand and TALK ABOUT how these things came to be, rather than feel victimized by assumptions. This is a genuinely complex subject, and we need a kinder, braver dialogue. I’m not sure how that is going to come about, but it won’t be through posters, fliers, or ad campaigns.