By Tara Haelle
WEDNESDAY, June 10, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- A program aimed at teaching women how to recognize dangerous situations and resist sexual coercion almost halved the risk of rape on three college campuses, a new study shows.
"We expected that providing women with knowledge and tools could increase their ability to defend themselves and reduce the severity of the sexual violence they experience," said study author Charlene Senn, a professor of psychology at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. "We didn't expect the reductions to be as dramatic as they were. Only 22 young women need to receive the program for one completed rape to be averted."
The findings were published in the June 11 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
An estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of women attending universities will be sexually assaulted, with the highest risk occurring in their freshman and sophomore years, according to background information in the study.
The researchers conducted their trial at one large and two mid-sized Canadian universities with first-year female students aged 17 to 24. The 893 women in the study were randomly assigned to either attend a comprehensive rape resistance program or several sessions that simply provided women with pamphlets about sexual assault that they were encouraged to read during the meetings.
The 12-hour resistance program, conducted in four sessions, taught women how to effectively assess the risk of sexual assault by men they knew, recognize the danger in coercive situations, get past emotional roadblocks to resist unwanted sexual behaviors and practice verbally resisting the behavior or actions. The program also spent two hours teaching self-defense strategies and included several hours bringing all the instruction together in a session on safe sex practices and effective communication about sex.
The program relied on a psychological theory and past evidence, Senn said.
"There are many barriers to recognizing danger in situations where threat is not expected, such as social situations or interactions with known men," Senn said. "The program is designed to give women the information, skills and practice they need so that they can more quickly identify a situation as dangerous, and get out or use forceful resistance if necessary."
Based on surveys filled out a year later, just over 5 percent of the women in the resistance group had been raped, compared to nearly 10 percent of those in the comparison group. Similarly, the rate of attempted rape was 3 percent among those who received the resistance training compared to 9 percent in the comparison group.
Rape was defined as vaginal, oral or anal penetration without consent and obtained through threats, force or drugging a female, including intoxication with alcohol.
Yet, the program's approach could be considered problematic, suggested Kathleen Basile, a lead behavioral scientist in the division of violence prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The main problem with a preventive approach that is focused on potential victims of sexual assault is that it puts the responsibility for preventing the assault on the potential victim, and does not acknowledge the role that potential perpetrators and the larger community play," Basile said.
The most pervasive myth about sexual assault is that victims bear some of the blame because of how they dressed, what they drank or some other way they put themselves at risk, Basile said. "Sexual violence is never a victim's fault," she said.
Other misconceptions are that rapists are usually strangers, that false reports of rape are common and that rape is inevitable, Basile explained. In fact, most victims know their perpetrator, many rapes occur in relationships and most rapes never get reported to the police, she said.
"Prevention approaches that focus on preventing perpetration, by involving everyone in the community -- including potential perpetrators, potential victims and bystanders -- to change norms, skills and behaviors, are important parts of a comprehensive approach to preventing sexual violence," Basile said.
Other programs have focused on men's behavior, Senn said, but only a few high school programs have shown positive results and no research so far has shown that educating students about consent decreases sexual assault. Bystander programs that teach men and women to interrupt situations that could become dangerous offer the most promise, she added, but no quick fixes exist.
"We need to make stopping sexual violence everyone's business, hold men who commit sexual violence accountable, support their victims and give women the tools they need to fight back," Senn said.