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Teaching women to avoid rape works, but it’s controversial

A class tested at three Canadian universities taught women to recognize and get out of dangerous situations.
A class tested at three Canadian universities taught women to recognize and get out of dangerous situations.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Everyone wants to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. But nobody really knows what works.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has a possible answer: an intensive curriculum that teaches college women to recognize warning signs and resist sexual assault. Women who took the course, the new research finds, were as much as 46 percent less likely to be raped in the following year, compared with women who did not.

This is a big deal. Studies have found that women's risk of being sexually assaulted in college is about 1 in 5. The federal government is pressuring colleges to respond more aggressively when students report they've been assaulted — and it's possible that these types of courses could be one way campuses respond.

Still, sexual assault prevention programs that try to change how women, typically the victims, behave and react can be controversial. Instead of teaching men to respect women, the program teaches women to live in a world where sexual assault is an unavoidable reality.

What classes taught women about avoiding sexual assault


One of the brochures given to women in the control group, who didn't take the class on preventing sexual assault. (New England Journal of Medicine)

Researchers randomly assigned first-year college students at three Canadian universities into two groups. They gave the first group brochures about recognizing and avoiding sexual assault, which is all the training universities in the study typically offered. The second group took a 12-hour class that taught them to recognize and resist sexual assault and coercive behavior.

The class starts with teaching women about the risks of sexual assault: that friends or acquaintances of victims commit most sexual assaults, and that women need to be aware that people they've met before pose a greater risk than strangers who jump out from behind a bush.

The curriculum also says that rape is about power, not sex — saying that rape has as much to do with sex as beating someone with a rolling pin has to do with baking. It focuses on more particular danger signs: recognizing when men have a sense of sexual entitlement or seem prone to hostility and violence.

The curriculum also explores the emotional barriers to saying "no" — how women are socially conditioned to want to maintain relationships or avoid seeming aggressive. Instructors are told to say things like, "We should not care what a guy we know or other people will think of us if he is trying to assault us." The focus is on communication and assertiveness. An example scenario involving drinking never suggests that women shouldn't be drinking heavily, and instructors are told to correct students if they start to blame the victim.

Women were also taught self-defense — how to respond both verbally and physically to an attempted rape.

The class seems to have reduced the risk of sexual assault

A year later, the researchers followed up with a survey. Women who took the class were less likely to report they'd experienced rape, attempted rape, attempted sexual coercion, or other forms of sexual assault.

The differences could seem dramatic: 42 women in the group that read brochures reported being raped in the year after the study began, compared with 23 women in the group that took the class. (In all, 430 students both took the class and completed the survey a year later; 420 women received brochures and completed the follow-up.)

"Only 22 women would need to take the program in order to prevent one additional rape from occurring within 1 year after participation," the researchers wrote.

The study didn't make a difference on rates of sexual coercion — being verbally pressured or manipulated into sex.

Women who took the class also reported much lower rates of attempted sexual assault than women who read the brochures. That suggests that the self-defense portion might not have been the most important factor.

But it also suggests that if the training really helped women to avoid sexual assault, it was by teaching them to identify and avoid potentially dangerous situations before they escalate.

The study leaves one huge, important question unanswered: did the class really prevent sexual violence on campus overall, or did it just help a specific group of women avoid becoming victims — while other women, outside the class, essentially took their place?

A before-and-after survey of the entire campus might have shed some light on that, although the number of students who took the class on each campus was rather small. But the researchers only have results for students who read brochures or took the class, not students who never enrolled in the study in the first place.

The course appears to be an effective self-defense strategy — which, for the individual women, makes a big difference. But it's not clear if it reduced rates of sexual violence on campus as a whole.

Why focusing on women, not men, can be a troubling approach

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Some activists argue that focusing on men's behavior, not women's, is the best way to prevent sexual assault. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The curriculum used in the study is from a feminist perspective, and it reiterates that women are not to blame if they're assaulted and that only men can stop sexual assault entirely. It compares sexual assault to the flu: it's not your fault if you get sick, but if you can, you should take steps to prevent being harmed.

Still, placing some of the responsibility on women — teaching them it's their burden to fight protect themselves against assault — troubles some advocates. It treats rape as an inevitable threat that women must guard against, rather than something men could be taught not to do. In the flu analogy, this type of course focuses on treating the disease — rather than finding a vaccine to eradicate the virus in the first place.

"As a friend of mine once said, 'If you’re pushing a woman to change her behavior to "prevent" rape, rather than telling a perpetrator to change his, you’re really saying, "Make sure he rapes the other girl."' There will always be another girl at the bar," Dana Bolger, a co-founder of Know Your IX, which advocates for sexual assault victims on campus, wrote on Feministing.

The study acknowledges these concerns. "The resistance program is designed for women; effective interventions focusing on men’s behavior are also needed," the researchers wrote.

There are similar efforts: Coaching Boys Into Men, for example, tries to adjust high school athletes' attitudes toward women, power, and sex. The best hope for those approaches isn't just that they work — it's that programs that teach men not to assault or coerce women get the same kind of rigorous research attention as programs that teach women to avoid and deflect those men.

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