A Promising New Approach to Fighting Campus Sexual Assault

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New Haven Street at Night
Photo: yenwen

Despite the growing national conversation about campus sexual assault, researchers still haven’t come up with all that many proven ways to reduce its prevalence. But a new study of a prevention program targeting college women published in The New England Journal of Medicine offers some very tantalizing results.

For the study, lead-authored by Dr. Charlene Senn of the University of Windsor, 451 women were assigned to the “resistance group” and underwent a 12-hour “Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance program,” while 442 members of a control group were provided with access to the sorts of sexual-assault brochures usually available on college campuses. One week, six months, and 12 months after the intervention, participants in both the resistance and control groups filled out a survey asking which sorts of attempted or completed rape, if any, they’d experienced.

The goal of the training was for the women to be “able to assess risk from acquaintances, overcome emotional barriers in acknowledging danger, and engage in effective verbal and physical self-defense” — and it seems to have worked. There were significant differences in the rates of completed (9.8 percent versus 5.2 percent) and attempted (9.3 percent versus 3.4 percent) rape between the two groups, with those in the control group facing higher risks of both. (Stated differently, those in the resistance group were 4.6 percent less likely to be raped, and 5.9 percent less likely to have someone attempt to rape them.)

So what does it mean to “overcome emotional barriers”? Senn explained to Science of Us that a key goal of the program was to help women more quickly recognize when an acquaintance might pose a risk. This focus is important for two reasons: (1) Acquaintance rape is much more common than stranger rape, especially on college campuses; and (2) when an acquaintance rather than a stranger is being creepy but hasn’t yet done anything explicitly threatening, it’s simply harder, socially, to take assertive action. “From a stranger, things are very obviously threatening,” she said. “From someone you know, they might not be.”

Senn used the example of a college woman who is alone in her dorm room when her roommate’s boyfriend shows up and asks repeatedly to come in, even though his girlfriend isn’t there at the moment. To Senn, this is exactly the sort of situation where awkwardness might give a potential perpetrator an advantage. If he were a stranger, it would be easy to tell him to get lost. But it’s not easy to tell someone you know that, no, they can’t come in, so the goal of the program, said Senn, is to help women navigate these sorts of situations by explaining to them exactly which sorts of situations may pose greater risks. In this example, there are at least two red flags: The guy is being persistent (Senn said there’s evidence that men who are pushy in general, even about nonsexual things, are more likely to commit sexual assault), and he’s trying to bring about a situation where he’s alone with the roommate in a confined space.

It’s very clear, if he insists on coming in your apartment, there’s a danger there,” said Senn. “So what the program is trying to do is help women to see … her sense that something is off is likely right. Trust yourself in that instinct, right? And [women in the program] would have empirical evidence that we know isolation is a danger cue, because it gives perpetrators an advantage.”

Senn said that part of the problem here is that many women are socialized from a young age to be accommodating — they can end up feeling like they’re doing something wrong or committing a faux pas simply for reacting appropriately to a creepy situation. “Much of female socialization in this area is really counter to taking action that will be effective,” she said. “All the pressure to be nice, particularly to people you know, to not be harsh, to not judge, to not hurt people’s feelings — all of those kind of things in an acquaintance [rape] situation are obstacles to taking fast action.”

All that being said, Senn emphasized that the program is carefully designed not to simply be 12 hours of nightmare stories. Rather, there’s a segment of training time specifically carved out for discussion of health sexuality. “The contextualization of sexual-assault resistance within a setting of discussion of women’s own desires and their values in relationships, in a sex-positive environment, is unique in the field, and so that may also be part of” the program’s success, she said. (She also said she has data suggesting that those who underwent the program came out of it less, rather than more, fearful of sexual assault.)

Dr. Kate Carey, a sexual-assault researcher at Brown University who wasn’t involved with Senn’s study, said in an email that she was impressed by it. “This improves upon many sexual assault prevention program evaluations that use much smaller samples, brief follow-ups, and only measure changes in attitudes or intentions,” she said. “It clearly shows a benefit of participating in the intervention, which substantially reduced the risk of completed and attempted rape as well as nonconsensual sexual contact.”

I asked Senn about the politics of all this. The intervention she’s touting, after all, is focused entirely on women, and some advocates and activists have argued that since it’s men who are (mostly) the ones committing sexual assault, it’s unfair to focus on approaches that don’t target their behavior. 

One of the things I do find interesting in this is that people assume I’m not an activist, which is interesting because that’s my history,” she said. “I totally understand the critique, and I’ve been part of that critique, of programs or efforts — things like posters that you see on campuses and things — that seem to entirely put the responsibility on women and women’s behavior, or to blame women or try and get them to change their behavior or their actions, and I am completely onboard with the critique there: It is entirely inappropriate.” She said she was particularly put off by “Don’t be that girl” posters she’s seen on her campus, which she took to be implying that women who drink too much were somehow responsible for being raped.

But Senn said that there just aren’t a lot of proven anti-sexual-assault programs, whatever their target. “I think the part that many of the activists, in the debates I’ve seen, are underestimating, is that they believe that there’s something we could target men at the university level with that would stop their behavior,” she said. “They believe there is an alternative that would stop sexual violence now, and that is not true.” Senn said that that the only programs for men that have shown any real promise target boys in middle school, not college. So unless and until these programs become more widespread — or researchers come up with effective programs targeting college males — in the meantime, “Women are still going to be confronting men who are trying to coerce them when they are in university or high school.” As Carey, the Brown researcher, put it in her email: “Yes, address the behavior of the aggressors, and yes, work to change environments and culture, but in the meantime help women protect themselves!”

There’s no quick fix,” said Senn. “There should never be just one thing we’re doing. We absolutely need to stop perpetration, and I do hope that ten years from now, if I’m very optimistic, there would be no need for this program at all, and I’d be happy to see it mothballed. But we need to make stopping sexual violence everybody’s problem.”

A Promising Approach to Fighting College Rape