Prevention Corner: New Findings, Ongoing Practice

Aug 22nd, 1970

Marian Firke Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education) When it comes to college sexual assault prevention, "deluge" is not strong enough a word for the volume of information surging its way towards our inboxes and desktops. When staying afloat on top of each wave of information is such a challenge, it can be particularly difficult to see a clear course of action to take in response to the plethora of data being received. It is vital that we identify which studies are most important and cut through their methodological complexities to identify concrete action steps. Two recent studies have garnered a lot of attention. One is a study of a sexual assault prevention program, whose stated efficacy remains somewhat controversial [1]. The other is an investigation of patterns of perpetration, whose authors seek to challenge the accepted belief that most college rapists are serial perpetrators. [2] As with any study, both of these have their virtues and their shortcomings. In our field, however, this kind of academic critique is not enough. What do these studies teach us about how to prevent sexual assault on campus? And are there any common threads or courses of action suggested by both? The Sexual Assault Resistance Education (SARE) Program This study, released in June, investigated the efficacy of a sexual assault prevention program.
  • The program featured four 3-hour units with classroom instruction that included "information-providing games, mini-lectures, facilitated discussion, and application and practice activities." The four units were  a 3-part resistance curriculum consisting of "Assess," "Acknowledge," and "Act," and the fourth unit consisted of education on healthy relationships and sexuality, including general sex education.
  • The program included self-defense training. However, unlike most self-defense training courses, the physical training element was only one part of the course, with 2 hours of Wen-Do included in the 3-hour "Act" unit.
  • Control sessions featured brochures about sexual assault, to mimic standard practice in college health centers. Control group participants were informed about the brochures and given a brief discussion opportunity.
  • Participants who received the training program had a lower 1-year risk of completed rape than the control group participants, with 5.2% of the training group participants reporting a completed rape as opposed to 9.8% in the control group.
  • A significant difference was also seen in the 1-year risk of attempted rape, with 3.4% of the training group reporting attempted rape compared to 9.3% of the control group.
This study has received a great deal of attention, particularly due to the large reductions in both attempted and completed rape reported by participants. The 1-year risk for attempted rape had a relative risk reduction of 46.3%--potentially a very promising finding. However, it is this same reported success that some critics find concerning. Since SARE is specifically a resistance program rather than a cultural norms program, the implication is that any observed reduction in sexual assault would be due to participants' ability to verbally and/or physically fight off a potential assailant. Were this the case, the results would be expected to indicate a reduction in completed rape alongside an increase in attempted rape reports--with those attempted rapes representing the cases where "resistance" proved effective. This is not what was seen. There are two prevailing critiques of the reporting data. First, it is possible that potential perpetrators shifted their attention from women in the SARE training group to other students. The study did not include campus-wide surveillance about sexual violence, and so there is no way of knowing whether rapes were prevented or merely shifted from the training participants to others on campus. As Dana Bolger has written, "the resistance class may help an individual avoid violence but doesn't necessarily reduce it overall." [3] Particularly as many schools only deliver rape prevention education to certain subsets of the student body, this is an important concern. Second, it is possible that students who received the training under-reported rapes and attempted rapes. Having been trained to "resist" sexual assault, this group of students may have believed that their experiences either did not "count" as rape or were due to their failure to "resist" appropriately. If this were the case, the same reporting data would indicate not a reduction in rape but an increase in self-blame on the part of victims--the opposite of progress. The greatest strength of this program is that it incorporates a more contextualized approach when compared with traditional self-defense courses. While it uses self-defense skills as its cornerstone, the content was far broader than self-defense and included practicing verbal communication, recognizing verbal coercion by a partner, and exploring participants' own values and desires regarding sexual activity. Whereas other recent studies of self-defense education have shown no effect [4], when taken at face value the results of the SARE study indicate a highly effective program. The broader context for the resistance education is likely responsible for this, given that program efficacy is generally believed to be tied to how comprehensive a curriculum is. What lessons can be drawn from the SARE study?
  • Campus-wide data regarding sexual violence is important. Without campus-level surveillance data, it is impossible to know if sexual assault is being prevented or if it is simply being shifted from one population to another.
  • Creating an effective self-defense program requires the inclusion of broader context, including material on healthy relationships and sexuality.
Trajectory Analysis of the Campus Serial Rapist Assumption This study sought to investigate whether college rapists demonstrated consistent patterns of perpetration across multiple years in college. [2]
  • Two cohorts of male college students were surveyed about their behavior. They were asked about their behavior both before college and during college, with surveys covering individual years of the students' time in college. Across the samples, 10.8% of the respondents self-reported behavior meeting the definition of sexual assault at some point between the ages of 14 and the end of college.
  • The results were classified into three different trajectories: a pattern of consistent low risk of perpetration, a pattern of increasing risk of perpetration, or a pattern of decreasing risk of perpetration. The results did not support a fourth trajectory of consistently high risk, which would correspond to the expectation of consistent, serial perpetration throughout the student's college career.
  • 74.7% of the students who reported having committed rape in college did so during only one academic year.
The major barrier to interpreting this data is that there is insufficient detail about behavior within a given academic year. Because the data collection focused on defining "serial perpetration" as rape committed in multiple academic years, rather than as multiple incidents, the published data are not informative about potential serial perpetration confined to a single academic year. A student who sexually assaulted one victim once, a student who sexually assaulted one victim ten times, and a student who sexually assaulted ten victims once each all would appear to fit in the "low" trajectory so long as all of the assaults occurred during the span of a single academic year. But one would be hard-pressed to argue that the second two scenarios do not represent "serial" perpetration. The far more important finding of this study is that 10.8% of male students self-reported perpetrating at least one sexual assault between age 14 and the end of college. Regardless of whether those students are single or serial perpetrators, this data indicates that acceptance and perpetration of sexual violence is pervasive among college males. Also important to note is that 5.1% of the students reported committing a sexual assault prior to arriving in college. This finding is important to highlight as it demonstrates the importance of comprehensive sexual health and violence prevention education prior to students beginning college. What lessons can be drawn from this study?
  • Prevention and response paradigms that focus on targeting small populations and on expelling students as primary modes of "prevention" for the campus as a whole are likely to be ineffective. With 1 in 10 members of the male student body committing sexual assault at least once while in college, prevention programs need to target all students.
  • 20% of rapists did exhibit a pattern that matches the "serial perpetration" pattern defined by the researchers. This means that although the majority of sexual assaults potentially are not committed by a serial rapist, 1 in 5 college rapists exhibits a clear pattern of repeat violence.
  • It is possible that some college rapists are still serial perpetrators within a single class year, given that this level of data is not available from this study. If this were to be the case, it would emphasize the importance of investigating and adjudicating sexual assault cases within a short time frame, including the 60-day resolution time frame mandated by Title IX.
  Putting It All Together These two studies examine the issue of college sexual assault from two different perspectives: one, from the lens of prevention, focusing on female students as potential future victims of violence; the other, from the lens of behavior in practice, with implications for how colleges should respond to sexual violence. At their intersection, however, there are important implications for everyone involved in preventing sexual violence on college campuses.
  • Complete, campus-level surveillance data is essential to evaluating the efficacy of sexual assault resources. If other modes of surveillance are not available, campus climate surveys may be one opportunity to collect this data. Collecting data from a broad sampling (if not all of) a school's student population is essential for determining whether the observed efficacy of a program is because violence has been reduced, or because it has been shifted. It can also assist in evaluating whether a school's policies, including its responses to reports of sexual violence, are affecting victimization rates.
  • Prevention programs must be comprehensive. Given that 10.8% of male students may be perpetrating sexual violence, prevention education for all students should be a high priority. But in order to ensure that training and other resources are effective, it is also important that they focus on not just rape, but also rape culture. In addition, comprehensive prevention efforts should offer multiple and engaging formats for students to access information (rather than passively offering brochures and other materials), should include an examination of college policy, and promote collaborations that will ensure that all students receive resources.
  • Schools should be particularly attentive to what does and does not appear effective for underserved populations on their campuses, since this remains a neglected area in much of the research. Both of these studies are heterosexist and uphold stereotypes about who rape victims are likely to be, and neither addresses non-female victims or non-male perpetrators. Given that sexual violence occurs at higher rates in the LGBTQ community, this assumption is a frequent but major limitation. As schools work to assess the efficacy of their prevention programs, they should do so with particular focus on how those programs succeed or fail to affect violence against underserved populations, including (but not limited to) LGBTQ students, racial and ethnic minorities, and students with disabilities.
    [1] Charlene Y. Senn, Charlene; Eliasziw, Misha; Barata, Paula; Thurston, Wilfreda; Newby-Clark, Ian; Radtke, Lorraine; and Karen Hobden. "Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women," New England Journal of Medicine 372 (2015): 2326-233. Accessed online. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa1411131 [2] Swartout, Kevin; Koss, Mary; White, Jacquelyn; Thompson, Martie; Abbey, Antonia; and Alexandra Bellis. "Trajectory Analysis of the Campus Serial Rapist Assumption," JAMA Pediatrics (2015). Published online.  doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.0707  [3] Dana Bolger. "SMART Study Finds Resistance Program Helps Women Avoid Rape--But At What Cost?" Feministing, June 11, 2015. Published Online.  [4] "Program Profile: Sexual Assault Risk Reduction Program," National Institute of Justice.
  This article appeared in the Summer 2015 Issue of Frontline.  

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