According to a new study, teaching women methods for preventing rape could substantially reduce their risk of being raped. The research looks promising in its assertion that programs like this could help lower the risk of sexual assault for college-age women — and, as current statistics show that one in six female college freshmen experiences sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during her first year at school, teaching women to defend themselves against rapists doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
Yet many people oppose the approach, arguing that the onus shouldn’t be on women to prevent sexual assault. Writing in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti echoed this concern: “In a world where rape victims are routinely blamed for violence perpetrated against them, sending the message that stopping rape is women’s work is a slippery slope.” Of course, this is an important consideration — yet, after we spoke with several women who participated in the study, we found that many of them saw a striking distinction between reducing the risk of rape and victim-blaming. “The course made it clear that rape is never the victim’s fault — and nothing causes rape except the rapist himself,” Tasha Longtin, a participant in the study during her tenure at the University of Guelph, told the Cut. “But sometimes, no matter how much it is not your fault, you might unfortunately find yourself in a bad situation, and raising awareness about sexual assault, and teaching women to be more empowered in defending themselves is only going to help women in the long run.”
The study, published recently in The New England Journal of Medicine, randomly assigned 451 female students to take part in a 12-hour rape-prevention course, which included sessions on defining personal sexual boundaries, assessing risk, and learning self-defense. A year later, researchers found that the rate of self-reported rape among the women who took the course was 5 percent — compared with 10 percent among the 442 women in the control group, who were given brochures and a brief information session about sexual assault. The risk of attempted rape among women who took the course was even lower: 3.4 percent among women who received the training, compared with 9.3 percent among those who didn’t.
The study’s authors have been careful to clarify that this method should be just one component of rape prevention on campus, which should include bystander-intervention training, holding perpetrators responsible for their actions, and providing increased support for survivors. Charlene Senn, a social psychologist at the University of Windsor and lead author of the study, has been developing the curriculum for this course since 2005, and explains that her approach is grounded in women’s understanding of and comfort with their sexuality. In the past, conversations about desire and sex education have been absent from similar sexual-assault resistance programs, yet Senn’s course includes a three-hour session for women to discuss and learn about consensual sex. “I was interested in a context that fully acknowledges women’s desire and their right to go after sex that they want,” she told the Cut.
Senn’s philosophy is that educating young women about sex (in addition to sexual assault) sets them up to be less vulnerable to sexual coercion, and better prepares them to fend off unwanted advances from acquaintances, friends, and boyfriends — a far more common risk than being attacked by a stranger. “Take anal sex, for example,” Senn says. A woman might say to a guy that she doesn’t want to do that, and he might respond, “Other women would,” or “You’re not cool,” or “You’re a prude.” “So then, the women would find themselves in a situation of clearly not wanting to, but also not feeling sure they were justified in not wanting to. And because they were relatively inexperienced, and because they hadn’t talked about these kinds of issues with people, often they feel like they have to ‘give in.’”
Yet, rape prevention that appears to put the responsibility in the hands of women can be hard to stomach. In an editorial published alongside the study, Kathleen C. Basile, a lead scientist in violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, writes that the “primary weakness” of a rape-prevention intervention that focuses on women is “that it places the onus for prevention on potential victims, possibly obscuring the responsibility of perpetrators and others.”
“Teach men not to rape” tends to get a lot of traction as a response to the idea that women might be able to learn to reduce their risk of rape. Yet, according to Senn, in practice, it ignores the facts. “Right now, we don’t have an effective tool to stop male perpetration at the university level,” she said. “The only effective programs we have to stop male perpetrators [require intervention] at a much younger age — grade six, seven, and eight — and they are not widespread. Until they are, we are not actually reducing the number of perpetrators at the university level.”
Senn argues that women who are well-informed about sex may be able to more effectively resist unwanted advances in less-forceful circumstances. “My idea is that the more confident and sure women are of what they desire, and what they want, the easier it is to say, ‘No, I’m not doing that’ — and there wouldn’t be that prolonged pressure that results in sexual assault or clearly unwanted sex.”
This theory resonates with Heidi Fischer, who participated in the prevention course. “Getting in tune with what you’re comfortable with allows you to have confidence in yourself and your own sexuality,” she said. “If you already know what your limits are, you’re not as likely to get coerced into things that you’re not interested in doing.”
The course also asked students to consider different scenarios where they might be at risk of sexual assault, and how they would react. Emily Van Niekerk, another participant in the study, thought that this alone could explain the drop in the sexual-assault rate among women who took the course. “Someone who isn’t used to thinking, ‘If I were going to be sexually assaulted, this is how I would react,’ wouldn’t know how to react,” she said. “In the course we were really forced to think how we would react in a situation like that, so we were more prepared.”
The study showed that, when faced with hypothetical situations in which sexual assault was a risk, women who had taken the rape-prevention course were more likely to report that they would use methods that are proven to be more effective — forceful verbal and physical resistance. According to Senn, this is a significant contrast to how most women respond when assaulted by acquaintances, which is often by crying and pleading. “That’s natural and makes sense, but it’s not effective,” Senn told the New York Times.
Corynn Lucci, who took the course during her first year at the University of Guelph, told the Cut she had more confidence after the training, and she wasn’t afraid to act on it. She recalled a time she put her self-defense training to use: “I was at a bar with friends, and it was just a bunch of us girls, and we were dancing. Guys take that as an invite that they can just choose to dance with you, whether you want that or not. This guy came up and he snaked his arm around my waist and pulled me close to his hips. I asked him to let me go three times, and he would just tighten his grip. He had his hand locked on my wrist and he wasn’t letting me go, and he was a lot bigger than me. I didn’t panic, because that’s not going to get me anywhere, and I recalled the self-defense course. I stepped back onto his foot, and threw my elbow into his solar plexus. He let go pretty quickly after that. It was comforting to know that I had that knowledge, and I was able to get out of it.”
Participants in the study said repeatedly that the biggest thing that changed after taking the course was their awareness. “I notice things a lot more. I assess situations differently,” said Fischer. A big focus of the course is training students to identify factors that put them at an increased risk of rape. “It’s about seeing situations that give perpetrators advantages — like isolation, like alcohol, no matter who’s drinking it,” says Senn. “And then figuring out ways that work for each woman to decrease his advantage.”
In practice, this approach involves encouraging women to get themselves out of situations where sexual assault is a risk before it escalates to that level. “If it’s working right, you don’t even know that it’s working, because you’ve already taken yourself out of a situation that has the potential to become risky,” said Fischer. And, the drop in attempted rapes observed by researchers seems to confirm that this strategy is working. Conventional wisdom suggests that if women are effectively fighting back against rapists, then attempted-rape numbers would likely go up — since what might have been a completed rape would now be reported as “attempted.” According to Senn, the drop in attempted sexual assaults suggests that the women in her study are relying on early detection of risk indicators, and avoiding situations that could put them at increased risk.
Here, the line between encouraging women to avoid risky situations and restricting their behavior does seem a little murky — which, unfortunately, is probably the reality of living in a culture that is still struggling with how to effectively address a rape epidemic. Still, Senn’s philosophy is far more nuanced than Emily Yoffe’s much-denounced argument that women should stop getting drunk to avoid being raped: “Our program takes the position that, if you’re drinking 12 drinks, there’s no risk of rape, unless there’s someone around who’s willing to rape. The risk is not in the alcohol,” Senn said. She also argues against precautions that, while may be widely believed to be prudent, are not actually effective at lowering the risk of rape. “I want to reduce the fear of strangers, so that women are not restricting their behavior around the things that many young girls have been socialized to do, that are reducing their quality of life and not providing protection,” like going out alone at night.
Senn is currently developing a pilot version of her rape-prevention course that other schools and universities could implement for free, which she hopes to have ready for the fall 2016 school year. She is clear that the program should be considered only one piece of a multi-pronged approach to rape prevention, yet acknowledges that other solutions, like bystander intervention, are still a long way off from having a widespread impact. “We need to admit that's a long-term solution,” she said, “and we need to give women the tools they need to fight back. I can’t imagine that anyone would really say, Now that we know that by helping women with the detection of risk from acquaintances, overcoming emotional barriers, and particular strategies for resistance, we can actually stop some rapes from being committed, we’re not going to give women that knowledge and those tools.”
Conversations with Senn and the women who participated in the course made it clear they knew this approach isn’t a complete answer. But it’s also not clear why anyone would dismiss an approach that participants not only described as empowering, but is also proven to lower their risk of sexual assault. When one of her friends in the study was assigned to the control group, which read brochures, Lucci said that she filled her in after every class. “She enjoyed learning it from me. She was like, ‘I wish I could have taken self-defense, I wish I could have learned that,'” Lucci said. Maybe, instead of referring to this program as “rape-prevention,” we should call it what it really is: a sexual empowerment course.