How to Reduce Sexual Assault on University Campuses

A landmark Canadian study instructed participants on how to confront the risk of sexual assault on campus, reports Erin Anderssen. While it’s a partial solution – and an imperfect one – research shows resistance tactics work

In the debate over how to reduce sexual assault on university campuses, proposing self-defence classes for women is controversial. Women aren’t the problem, the reasoning goes, so why is changing their behaviour the solution? Putting the onus on women to drop-kick rapists, map out safe walks home, or geo-track their drinks at parties, writes the rules in the wrong direction. And it swerves too easily into victim-blaming.

But, according to new landmark Canadian research, it works. The study, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the Canadian-designed intervention, which focuses on teaching women how to detect risk in situations that could lead to sexual assault and defend themselves when necessary, reduced the rate of rape among participants by nearly 50 per cent. At a time when universities are facing harsh criticism for mishandling sexual assault, when the White House has called for action to reduce sexual violence on campus, when it’s estimated that as many as one in four female university students may be assaulted before they finish their degree, is it responsible to deny young women access to a tried-and-tested program?

The four-year study tracked nearly 900 women at three Canadian universities, randomly selecting half to take the 12-hour “resistance” program, and compared them to a second group who received only brochures, similar to those available at a health clinic. One year later, the incidence of reported rape among women who took the program was 5.2 per cent, compared to 9.8 per cent in the control group; the gap in incidents of attempted rape was even wider.

The discomfiting part: Potential victims are still shouldering the burden for their own safety.

“There are no quick fixes,” says lead author Charlene Senn, a women’s studies professor at the University of Windsor. “We need multiple strategies. But we now know that giving women the right skills, and building the confidence that they can use them, does decrease their experience with sexual violence. This is our best short-term strategy while we wait for cultural change.”

On the first of four Thursday evening sessions, Lindsey Boyes had to leave the room. She was shaking. The facilitator had just finished explaining how the Canadian Criminal Code says consent cannot be given when a person is incapacitated and intoxicated.

“It felt like she was talking directly to me,” recalls Ms. Boyes, who joined the study for extra credit in her first-year psychology class at the University of Calgary.

When Ms. Boyes was 16, she’d gotten drunk at a party. An older boy – “the most popular guy” at her small-town school, she recalls – offered to help her find a place to sleep because her girlfriends had already left. She remembers throwing up, a lot, and then flashes of him on top of her in bed. “Afterwards, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody.’” But word spread, and she went from being a virgin to a “slut” in one night. Even her friends told her, “You shouldn’t have gotten so drunk.” They were right, she decided, it was her fault.

Now, in this class, she was learning for the first time to see what happened as a crime for which she was not to blame. “It was pretty intense,” recalls Ms. Boyes, now 22, who is going into her fourth year of a commerce degree. “It was a complete paradigm shift for me.”

The prevention program is a modern step from those old-school, self-defence classes that suggested, misleadingly, that the biggest risks come from empty parking garages and strangers leaping from bushes. Participants are reminded in the first of four classes that at least 80 per cent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

Eight hundred and ninety-three women were recruited mostly from first-year psychology classes at the Universities of Windsor, Calgary and Guelph. They ranged in age from 17 to 24. Half of them were living in residence. The women in the study were randomly selected into two comparable groups. Retention was high; about 90 per cent of women assigned to the intervention group completed at least three of the four session in the 12-hour program.

Prior to taking the study, the rate of self-reported rape since age 14 in the entire group was 23 per cent, a number that may be higher than average because women with a history of sexual violence might have been more likely to volunteer for the study. But, at the same time, it’s estimated that one in four university women will be sexual assaulted during their four years on campus. This figure is based largely on a Canadian study more than a decade old, and is the subject of some debate, but American research also suggests rates between 14 and 26 per cent.

“The keys in the eyes are not going to work around your girlfriend’s boyfriend,” Prof. Senn likes to say. She cites studies that show women are the least likely to use force against acquaintances and friends, that perpetrators are more likely to lead with charm and alcohol than overt aggression. The course covers how to escape a choke hold, and ways to get out from underneath someone on a bed, but focuses on how to prevent situations from going that far. The most powerful part of a woman’s body, participants are told, is her voice. One of the central messages in the course: Don’t worry about being polite. Trust your instincts.

“As women we are really taught not to offend, not to be rude to people,” says Heidi Fischer, now 25, who participated in the study during her first year at the University of Guelph. “It’s about getting in touch with your gut.”

The course has four goals: to teach women common scenarios for sexual assault, how to recognize potential predators, how to evade danger (including through self-defence), and how to think about sexuality and relationships in terms of their own desires and boundaries.

Prof. Senn says the course stresses that learning skills does not mean women are to blame when an assault occurs; they also receive information on their rights, and how to file a complaint. (Ninety per cent of participants attended at least three of the three-hour sessions. Researchers offered small cash incentives, as is standard in trials, and guaranteed anonymity in the surveys. While researchers couldn’t follow up on assaults, women were given material after completing surveys reminding them how to seek help.)

The participants interviewed for this story could all give examples of ways they had used what they learned. They mentioned covering their drinks, being aware of their environment, speaking up sooner when a situation felt risky even if it meant offending someone. Six months after taking the course, Ms. Boyes was alone in a car with a first date, when he started to make her uncomfortable. “He was getting pretty pushy, and I told him to take me home,” she says. “I am not sure I would have been that direct before.”