A new college rape prevention plan is promising—and problematic

On Wednesday, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that actively teaching female college freshmen about assessing risk, setting boundaries, and practicing verbal and physical self-defense greatly reduces their risk of campus rape and sexual assault.

For the study, the women from three different Canadian colleges were divided into two groups: Resistance and control. The resistance group attended four 3-hour sessions of an Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance program, “with the goal of being able to assess risk from acquaintances, overcome emotional barriers in acknowledging danger, and engage in effective verbal and physical self-defense.” The control group was merely provided with brochures on sexual assault, to mimic normal university practice for prevention and awareness.

After a year, both groups were surveyed — and those who were a part of the resistance program reported a substantially lower risk of sexual assault and other forms of victimization. The 1-year risk of completed rape was 5.2% for the resistance group, versus 9.8% for the control group; and the 1-year risk of attempted rape was 3.4% for the resistance group, versus 9.3% for the control group.

“It’s an important, rigorous study that shows that resistance and self-defense training needs to be part of college sexual assault prevention,” Sarah E. Ullman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told The New York Times. “This won’t solve the problem, but it’s an important piece that has been overlooked.”

The study is an important one with significant findings — but as many have pointed out, the program still puts the onus on women to protect themselves from rape and assault, as opposed to teaching attackers not to rape and assault in the first place. While we’re glad to hear the trials proved successful (because everything we can do to prevent sexual assault matters), the program still doesn’t really address the root of the problem — and it’s important we discuss why. 

“It’s possible that potential perpetrators could encounter individuals who have received training and just move on to more vulnerable individuals,” Sarah DeGue, a behavioral scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The New York Times.

Victim-blaming implies that it’s the victim’s fault for their assault, and that if they had done something differently — worn different clothes, or taken a self-defense class — it wouldn’t have happened. But this is incredibly problematic (not to mention untrue), and suggests that our behavior somehow makes us “deserve” to be violated. It remains as essential as ever that we fight this, because it is never the victim’s fault.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in five women will be the victim of campus rape or assault, and nine out of ten of these victims will know their attacker. According to the Justice Department, only 20% of victims will report their assault to the police out of fear of reprisal, not being believed, or getting their attacker in trouble. These numbers are the result of a culture that claims “boys will be boys” and shames victims — women and men alike — for not better protecting themselves.

The only way to completely prevent rape is by teaching people not to rape. There will always be someone “more vulnerable,” without the privilege of education and self-defense — and even those with these privileges can never be completely protected from victimization until we teach people not to victimize. Until then, studies like this one from The New England Journal of Medicine are extremely important, because they show what we can do in the interim to better protect ourselves.

It’s also not the first time that teaching women how to defend themselves has proven successful in reducing chances of rape and assault, either. Earlier this year, Kenya’s No Means No program — which aimed to empower women by teaching them self-defense — combined with their Your Moment of Truth program — which aimed to teach boys not to rape — lowered rates of assault in schools by 20%.

“Kenya’s approach is wonderful because it empowers and educates instead of blaming and shaming,” Parker Molloy wrote for a piece in Upworthy — and that’s precisely what this new study gets right.

Everything we do to prevent rape and sexual assault is essential, but it’s ultimately by addressing the problem from both sides that will best help us to reduce it.

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