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Preventing college rape: why freshman year is key, especially for past victims

A new study finds a relationship between previous rapes and recurrence. The findings could add new layers of understanding to sexual assault policies and prevention work under way on college campuses.

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    Hundreds of Brown University students march across campus, in March, in Providence, R.I., to protest the college's handling of recent sexual assault allegations.
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A study released Wednesday details the prevalence of rape experienced by first-year college women. It also shows the degree to which sexual victimization before college increases the likelihood of being raped in college.

The findings can add new layers of understanding to sexual assault policies and prevention work under way on college campuses, public health experts say. They may also bolster a growing chorus of advocates who say students at much younger ages need to start learning about forging healthy relationships and standing up to cultural norms that perpetuate rape.

Between the start of their freshman and sophomore years, nearly 19 percent of the women who studied at a university in the Northeast said they experienced attempted rape or rape through physical force or while they were incapacitated. Between the age of 14 and the beginning of their sophomore year of college, 37 percent said they had undergone such experiences.

The women who experienced incapacitated rape before college were six times more likely to experience that again in college and four times more likely to be forcibly raped than women who had not been previously raped while incapacitated.

The study by researchers at Brown University in Providence, R.I., was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The study “gives us a clearer picture from which you can start to create more effective prevention strategies,” says David Lisak, an expert on interpersonal violence who has consulted with colleges. Although the sample is just under 500 students, the way it measures their experiences before college and at several points over the course of the ensuing year shows how research on sexual assault is becoming more sophisticated, he says.

The data confirm what many have said about the first semester being particularly risky, with a slightly higher percentage of women saying they experienced rapes or attempts during that time. But it also shows many women were raped in the second semester and the summer after as well. By the time they started their sophomore year, 11 percent of the women said they had been raped by force, and nearly 16 percent said they had been raped while incapacitated, either as a teen or in college.

Before college, 28 percent of the women said they had experienced attempted or completed rape.

The study highlights the need for a “trauma-informed approach” in college messaging that is sensitive to rape survivors, notes an editorial in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

At freshman orientation sessions that address sexual assault prevention, it might be easy for colleges “to assume you are talking to a cohort of blank slates, when in fact you may be talking to a good number of survivors already,” says Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect in Westport, Conn., which is working with campuses to promote better prevention strategies.

The prevention community already knows it’s important to be culturally appropriate when designing peer education – to consider specific groups such as athletes and Greek organizations, she says. “This is another piece of that puzzle, to realize you may already be talking to a survivor.”

In an effort to prevent rape even before women get to college, researchers are working to create a high school version of Bringing in the Bystander, a program developed by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) to train students to intervene when they see situations that could lead to sexual assault. 

This is not the first research to show that rape victims have a higher likelihood of being victimized in the future, but it may help inform discussions on college campuses about risk-reduction strategies, Mr. Lisak says. The idea of targeting messages to some students who are statistically at higher risk of experiencing sexual assault is politically sensitive, he says, because some see that as a form of victim blaming.

Colleges have been criticized, for instance, for focusing too much effort on teaching young women to avoid certain situations at parties.

“We need to really reframe how we think about risk reduction ... and focus more on who are the perpetrators and why are they ‘seizing the opportunity’ of vulnerable populations,” says Jane Stapleton, co-director of UNH’s Prevention Innovations: Research and Practices for Ending Violence Against Women.

The whole college community needs to be involved in sexual assault prevention that balances awareness of risks with efforts to reduce perpetration, says Kate Carey, lead author of the new study and a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University's School of Public Health.

College drinking is another subject that prompts complex conversations. “Being incapacitated as the result of alcohol and drugs can never be a good thing, but it’s not a license to be assaulted,” Professor Carey says. Two messages need to be delivered to students, she says: One, that high volumes of alcohol can be harmful and that avoiding extreme intoxication incapacitation is a good strategy for both men and women. And two, that there needs to be a shift in norms and attitudes that support aggression or the belief that “anything goes” when people are drinking.

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