How to reduce risk of rape at college? Study points to promising approach.

A Canadian study finds that 12-hour training helps first-year university women learn to trust their gut reaction to a situation and recognize when someone is trying to coerce them to do something they don't want.

Betsy Blaney/AP/File
Texas Tech freshman Regan Elder helps drape a bed sheet with the message 'No Means No' over the university's seal at the Lubbock, Texas campus, to protest what students say is a 'rape culture' on campus, in this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo. A study by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the University of Windsor, published Wednesday, found that a program that taught college women ways to prevent sexual assault cut in half the chances they would be raped over the next year.

* Editor's note: Join us on Facebook Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET for a special chat with education reporter Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, who will be joined by the mother of a rape survivor as they explore how parents and their college-age children can take a stand against sexual violence.

A new study shows that comprehensive sexual-assault resistance training for first-year university women can nearly cut in half the risk that they’ll be raped.

In the control group, which had access to pamphlets about sexual assault and could ask questions about them, 9.8 percent of the women were raped within one year. But among the 451 women who underwent the 12-hour training, 5.2 percent were raped. The study, based in Canada and published Thursday by the New England Journal of Medicine, also showed that the trained group experienced lower rates of attempted rape and nonconsensual sexual contact. 

The promising results add to a growing body of research aimed at helping prevention experts and college officials understand the most effective ways to reduce sexual assault. The four sessions of training cover a variety of information and skills, and one key element is empowering women to detect and respond to potential danger from people they otherwise would never suspect – campus friends and acquaintances.

This study can inform what are commonly referred to as risk-reduction strategies, and among tests of resistance training, it has shown the strongest and most long-term effects to date.

But prevention experts caution that sole reliance on teaching women to avoid and resist sexual assault would be a backwards step. Instead, they say, there needs to be continued training, primarily of boys and men, to reduce perpetration of rape, as well as bystander intervention training – emphasizing that it’s the whole campus community’s responsibility to reduce sexual violence.

“What we don’t want is people thinking, ‘We’ve just got to train people to protect themselves and then we don’t have to do all that difficult work of educating the community and changing attitudes and so forth,’ ” says David Lisak, an expert on interpersonal violence who has consulted with colleges. “But in the context of a comprehensive strategy, this absolutely has a place.”

A comprehensive strategy is necessary because if only some people are taught to avoid risk, perpetrators will simply move on to a more vulnerable victim, and the overall rate of sexual assault may stay the same, agrees the study’s lead author, Charlene Senn, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Windsor in Ontario. But during the long-term project of changing attitudes and behaviors, she says, it’s important to give young women “the tools they need to resist men who try to force or coerce them to engage in sexual activity that they don’t want.”

The training sessions were developed to help women understand risk in terms of perpetrators’ patterns, and to empower them to respond to common situations. The message is not one of victim-blaming, Professor Senn says, whereby women are often told by society that they make themselves vulnerable through certain behaviors, such as drinking.

“If they know that incapacitation increases perpetrator advantages … women can come up with their own strategies,” she says. Some may make a pact with a group of friends to drink less, or to designate a sober friend who will decide when they are all going to go home, for instance, but sexual assault is still about “the man being responsible for his behavior,” Senn says.

The training helps women trust their gut reaction to a situation. Senn offers the example of a roommate’s boyfriend showing up at the dorm room and insisting on coming in even though his girlfriend isn’t there. Many women are socialized to “not want to be rude or hurt someone’s feelings,” so even though he might start acting in an inappropriate way, they may “override the gut feeling” and simply try to reason with him, not realizing they are in danger.

Once the woman does realize she’s in danger, she might believe what Senn says is a myth, that fighting back usually increases one’s risk of being hurt. So the training teaches women how to start with strong verbal resistance and escalate to physical action if that’s not effective. Two hours of the training focus on self-defense moves designed to break wrist-holds and chokeholds and to get out from under someone on a bed or a couch.

Another portion of the training focuses on positive sexuality education, because the more they understand their own desires and values, “the faster they are at detecting that someone is trying to coerce them to do something they don’t want,” Senn says.

Further research can determine whether all 12 hours of the training are necessary to achieve the results, but Senn says that previous research suggests that less comprehensive training is not as effective. If universities invest the resources, she says, they will probably find that the training pays for itself in the reduced need for mental health resources and disciplinary procedures to respond to campus assaults.

The results are particularly encouraging because they find that even among women with prior sexual victimization (a group at higher risk for campus rape), the training reduced the risk of completed rape by about 25 percent. 

But many colleges are still grappling with revising and disseminating their sexual misconduct policies to students – and it turns out that more training for students is better in that realm, as well.

A recent study led by the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham found that students had a much greater understanding of campus sexual misconduct policies, and were more confident that they would use them to help themselves or a friend, if they not only were told the policy but had a facilitated discussion afterward. 

An online module alone, for instance, was not so effective, because students often didn’t do it or multitasked when they did, says Jane Stapleton, the center’s co-director.

But offering multiple forms of sexual assault information and skills training to students isn’t necessarily on the top of university agendas, Stapleton suggests. Because of ramped up enforcement of Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in education, many institutions are focused right now on compliance with the law, she says, “and unfortunately, the compliance mode is not always inclusive of [developing] a comprehensive prevention approach.”

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