An informed population of young women is an empowered population that’s less likely to be victimized. That’s the guiding principle behind a new comprehensive, research-based rape prevention program created by a group of Canadian researchers. And it’s working—research published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that the program cut young women’s risk of experiencing sexual violence in all forms by half.
The so-called “sexual assault resistance program” was tested at three different Canadian universities: the University of Calgary, Guelph University and the University of Windsor. Over the course of two years, just over 450 female students were taken through the 12-hour course, which tackles the social, psychological and physical obstacles that perpetuate sexual violence—and offers proven techniques for preventing it.
Statistically, women are at greatest risk from sexual assault by friends, acquaintances, colleagues and even relatives, says Charlene Senn, the study’s lead author and a rape prevention expert at the University of Windsor. With that in mind, teaching female university students how to best protect themselves against these specific types of perpetrators makes sense. One such technique? Self defense.
According to Senn, the idea that submission to assault is safer than fighting back is a myth not supported by research. “Women who use any method of forceful verbal or forceful physical resistance are much more likely to get out and avoid rape,” she says. Unfortunately, research suggests women don’t often use forceful resistance with people they know but rather resort to crying, reasoning or pleading—methods that don’t have a positive effect. The program aims to change that by incorporating two hours of “high-quality” self-defense instruction that’s grounded in a domestic context, concentrating on how to break wrist- and choke-holds and teaching women how to remove someone who’s pinning them down on a sofa or bed.
The program helps women identify obstacles to acting in their own interest, as well. “It’s also about overcoming that female socialization where with acquaintances we have to be nice, we have to try not to hurt people’s feelings, we have to try not to be harsh,” she says. “But in a situation where your sexual integrity is being threatened it is totally appropriate to abandon all those things.”
We talked to Senn about the program, how it differs from traditional approaches and when it might be coming to a campus near you.
It sounds like this whole project is taking statistical information and research into sexual assault and turning it into positive knowledge for young women. Is that the case?
Yeah, it really is. I used a huge base of theory and research done by other feminist psychologists and feminist activists, taking the best research knowledge we had and the best theories we had and saying, ‘OK, now how do we make this come to life?’
Statistically, university-age women have a higher risk of sexual assault. What’s the problem with how post-secondary institutions currently deal with this risk?
The hard part is that there is a split between the academic life of a campus and the service life of a campus. Many of the service kind of things we do—such as presentations on the “myths and facts” about rape—seem like a good idea, but there’s no evidence that they change knowledge or attitudes for more than a week or two. They are not based on empirical research. They really are what good-hearted people thought would be a good idea. There’s also a lack of knowledge [around prevention education]; for instance saying, ‘Can’t we just do it in auditorium with 400 students, men and women together, and we’ll do a half-hour conversation and that will be our prevention?’ We can predict with 100 percent accuracy that that will not work and yet that’s what we keep doing on campuses.
There’s so much pushback against programs that focus on women and there’s so much frustration about men not being incorporated into prevention programs, or even made the focus for changing their behaviours. Why aren’t we turning our attention to men? What’s the problem there?
The first thing I would say is absolutely there are no quick fixes to [the problem of sexual violence]. We have to accept that. But there are things we can do. First, we need to make stopping violence everyone’s issue, and so effective bystander programs are a very good way to address that, but they’re long-term solutions. We need to change the climate so that when the perpetrator makes a move, when that guys says, ‘I’m going to get her blasted tonight,’ to make sure that everyone around him is going to intervene or that there is a high enough proportion of people who will. That is a long-term enterprise. On Windsor’s campus, I’m involved in those initiatives. Last year, we offered the bystander workshop to over 1,300 students and we’re hoping that by offering that year after year we’re going to reach a tipping point where in 10 years we’re going to have actually shifted the climate. Then we need to hold men who commit sexual violence accountable. We need to support victims and survivors and we also need to give women the tools they need to fight back because between now and 10 years from now way too many women will experience sexual violence and we can’t wait [for the culture to change].
I am totally in agreement with the critiques of many programs that focus on women. Anything that is telling women where they should go or what they should do, and making sexual violence women’s problem is totally offensive. But what I would say is that a lot of people don’t know that many researchers have focused on men’s behaviour on university campuses, but only a few high school programs have achieved positive results. Obviously, I hope those researchers will continue their work, but we actually know that the university level it is too late [for young men]. Some of the programs that were aimed at men on campus actually made it worse. There were backlash effects. There was a great review recently by CDC researcher Sarah DeGue and her colleagues showing that the only programs that are shown to be effective are for grades six, seven and eight. Boys. Kids.
What do the findings about the program you’ve been teaching suggest about the future of effective rape and assault prevention?
I think we’ve got several breakthroughs. We’ve got this program to prepare women for that horrible situation of the unanticipated threat and we’ve got high quality bystander education that we know works, things like the University of New Hampshire’s Bringing in the Bystander program [which Senn adapted for the University of Windsor]. So we need to do the things we know are effective on our campuses.
Senn hopes to make the sexual assault resistance program available to campuses across North America by fall 2016.
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.