Last week, a Washington Post poll confirmed a controversial, shocking statistic: One in five women at US colleges say they have experienced a sexual assault.
There are few programs that have proven to be effective at preventing rape on campuses. A new study, published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, unveils a sexual-assault resistance training program that, in a randomized controlled trial, significantly reduced the risk of a woman being raped.
Young women who completed the program developed at the University of Windsor in Ontario — which teaches them how to recognize and assess threats and defend themselves from attacks — reported experiencing 46 percent fewer completed rapes and 63 percent fewer attempted rapes over one year than women in a control group.
“We need to make stopping sexual assault everyone’s business, but those are long-term solutions,” says Charlene Senn, a psychologist at the university who spent 10 years developing and fine-tuning the system. “In the meantime, we need to give women the tools they need to fight back against the men trying to sexually assault them now.”
In the past, rape-prevention programs have proven relatively disappointing. Many different approaches — from encouraging bystanders to intervene, to straightforward self-defense programs, to efforts to prevent male aggression — have been evaluated, but with often ineffectual results.
Senn began developing the Windsor program in 2005. After several pilot tests, she homed in on a program consisting of four 3-hour sessions designed for small groups of 20. Starting in 2011, she and colleagues randomly assigned 893 first-year female students at three Canadian universities to either the resistance program or access to brochures on sexual assault, which most universities have available.
The training sessions employed games, group discussions, video clips, and interactive examples to teach and practice skills to recognize the signs of risk and engage in verbal and physical defense against sexual assault.
The program emphasizes identifying risky behaviors in male acquaintances. “Stranger rape is very uncommon compared with acquaintance rape,” says Senn. “Elevated risk is not walking home in the parking lot at night. It is a post-party, hanging out in a dorm room with friends.”
In an accompanying editorial to the study, Kathleen Basile, a behavioral scientist in the division of violence prevention at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the intervention “a positive and sensible part of sexual violence prevention,” but says it is “limited” by itself.
“We can have a greater effect through combined efforts that also focus on potential perpetrators, bystanders, and broader community-level influencers,” Basile wrote. “There are no easy solutions to this problem.”