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.
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.”
“I pay more attention to what I am doing, how I am acting toward people,” says Jenna Harris, 21, who is going into her fourth year at the University of Windsor. “I make sure I don’t lead someone on,” including accepting drinks from a stranger. She practises the buddy system at parties and bars, and she is more careful about her own alcohol consumption, because, she says, “if you are responsible for your friends, you are responsible for yourself as well.”
While they called the material “empowering,” and described sharing what they learned with friends, the women also said they felt conflicted. “It’s keeping me safe, but it’s not keeping everybody safe,” Ms. Fischer says. “Why are we teaching women to be afraid, women to be cautious, instead of teaching men not to be perpetrators?”
Attacking the root, however, has proven more difficult. During frosh week at many North American universities, for instance, freshmen often receive a one- or two-hour workshop about consent. But according to a convincing stack of studies documented by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, this “education” has little to no influence on what happens during the alcohol-saturated parties that follow. Many programs were too short, the CDC concluded, to have any lasting impact, and tended to focus on areas such as legal implications, as if rape is caused “by a lack of awareness of the laws prohibiting it.” Bystander programs which encourage male and female students to shut down sexist jokes or step in at parties when they see risky behaviour have produced promising results, but cultural change, as Prof. Senn points out, is a long-term solution.
Many of the programs are offered too late – especially for young women like Lindsey Boyes. This was a common complaint among participants: Why hadn’t they learned this when they were first exploring their sexuality, and short on confidence?
There is convincing evidence in the research for introducing these types of program much earlier. The CDC research found that the three interventions that proved most successful at reducing harassment and assaults were offered in middle school and high school – suggesting, researchers said, that these younger ages may represent a “critical window” to promote safer behaviour.
But getting the program into schools can be challenging – as Ontario recently learned with the controversy around its new sex education curriculum, which includes information on consent. Prof. Senn had already faced that hurdle, when she offered the program to Windsor high schools; while the public board declined, she says, the Catholic board allowed the program provided she drop the final class on sexuality and relationships. Prof. Senn says the waiting lists to attend were so long they had to add extra sessions. Given that about half of the rapes women experience happen before they are 18, she says, “adapting the program for girls in high school is a priority.”
The program is not the full answer, researchers say, but it’s an immediate real-world approach. “We shouldn’t just sit around and wait for a cultural shift that isn’t happening,” says Lise Gotell, a women’s study professor at the University of Alberta who is familiar with the new Canadian study, and aware of the criticisms levelled at a women-centred approach. The larger lesson lies with the intervention’s success. “When constraining women’s actions is still the major way that we can respond to the threat of sexual assault,” she says, “that is an indication of how much more we have to do.”
The program will be offered free to Canadian universities, though schools will have to cover the cost of facilitators, for whom training guidelines are now being developed. In an ideal world, says Prof. Senn, “this program would be available to all first-year women students until we don’t need it any longer – that is, when sexual violence ends.”