Sexual assault resistance training works, according to a new University of Windsor-led study published in June in the New England Journal of Medicine.
While only those who commit acts of sexual violence can stop sexual assault, women may be able to reduce the likelihood that they will be the victim of a completed rape.
To use a medical analogy, there is not much we can do about pathogens such as bacteria or viruses already in our environment, but we can take steps to boost our immune system so we can better resist these pathogens when we come into contact with them. This is the logic behind sexual assault resistance education and this research.
Psychology and Women’s Studies professor Dr. Charlene Senn spent the past 10 years developing, revising and testing a sexual assault resistance education program. She based it on the empirical evidence and best practices for helping women interrupt men’s behaviour at an early stage and defend themselves effectively, if necessary.
With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr. Senn led a team of researchers (Paula Barata and Ian Newby Clark at the University of Guelph; Wilfreda Thurston and Lorraine Radtke at the University of Calgary; and Misha Eliasziw at Tufts University School of Medicine) in a clinical trial to study the efficacy of this novel program – the Enhanced Assess Acknowledge Act Sexual Assault Resistance Program (EAAA) – in first-year University women.
The EAAA program consists of four three-hour sessions which provides information, skills, and practice to assess risk from acquaintances, to overcome emotional barriers in acknowledging danger, and to engage in effective verbal and physical self-defence, as well as helping them explore their own sexual values, desires, boundaries and rights.
Eight hundred and ninety-three first-year female students at three Canadian universities (the Universities of Calgary, Guelph and Windsor) were randomly assigned to either the EAAA resistance program or brief exposure to brochures about sexual assault (control group), which is what most universities have available to students on campus.
One year after completing the intervention, women in the EAAA program experienced 46 per cent fewer completed rapes and 63 per cent fewer attempted rapes than women in the control group.
“We found that the one-year risk of completed rape was significantly lower for the women in the EAAA resistance group than in the control group, which corresponded to a 46 per cent relative risk reduction,” says Dr. Senn. “What this means in practical terms is that enrolling 22 women in the EAAA resistance program would prevent one additional rape from occurring.”
This is the first program developed in North America that shows positive outcomes that last beyond a few months.
Additionally, the rates of attempted rape, attempted coercion and non-consensual sexual contact were also significantly lower for women in the resistance program than the control group. This is the first study to show that the benefits of resistance training go beyond preventing non-consensual, penetrative sex to other non-consensual sexual acts and attempts.
Dr. Senn says young women are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted, primarily by male acquaintances, and that any reduction in these numbers would result in a substantial improvement in their mental and physical health.
“What this shows us is that, while we wait for effective programs for men or for cultural shifts in attitudes to happen, there is something practical we can do to give young women the tools they need to better protect themselves from sexual assault,” Senn says.
“The health and social consequences of sexual assault can be serious and long-term for victims. We know that the EAAA program works and see it as an important step in empowering young women to resist unwanted sexual activity and enjoy their sexual lives.”
Research suggests that one in four women will experience rape or attempted rape while attending university. Aside from the physical and emotional consequences to the victims, it is estimated that sexual assault against women costs Canadians $1.9 billion a year in healthcare and other related costs.
The study’s results have received global attention with articles appearing in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and The Daily Mail.