Windsor Starr by Charlene Senn 8 July 2015

‘Be wary of strange men, hold your keys between your fingers, and ask a guy you know to escort you home or to your car.”

If only these tips – aimed at and absorbed by millions of girls and women over the past few decades – actually helped prevent sexual violence.

In fact, such precautions end up restricting women’s behaviour without improving their safety. But new research has identified a promising approach to prevention that’s proven effective at significantly reducing sexual assault.

Consider this common scenario: First-year university student, Sarah, taught all her life to watch out for strangers, meets a guy she knows from psych class at a party. As they talk, he starts acting in ways that make her uncomfortable. Sarah wonders if she’s overreacting. As his behaviour worsens, she politely makes it clear she’s not interested. But before she realizes it, her hesitation at trusting her instincts has resulted in him managing to isolate her. Now he has her pinned down, and she’s trying to reason with him, but nothing she has learned has prepared her for this.

You can see the problem with the keys and escort strategy, when most sexual violence is committed by men known to the women they assault; women are unlikely to have their keys available when their best friend’s boyfriend decides to attack them. Even fewer would thrust their keys into his eyes. And because the risk of sexual assault rises when a male perpetrator is able to get a woman alone where she can’t be heard, the male escort actually increases her vulnerability.

That’s why the education program we developed strengthens women’s capacity to respond to danger faster, extricate themselves at an earlier stage, or fight back effectively, if that’s not possible. At the same time – if all attempts to resist fail – it makes clear that they’re not to blame, and tells them how to get support.

Our research shows that together, these strategies offer new hope, significantly decreasing female university students’ risk not only of rape, but also of attempted rape and other unwanted sexual acts.

Built on decades of previous studies, it incorporates four key elements:

1) It arms women with information about, and practice in, identifying aspects of situations and men’s behaviours related to higher risk for sexual violence. For instance, persistence in the face of rebuff is a danger sign in men, even when it occurs in a non-sexual context. But when women are confronted with unexpected behaviour from a person they trust, merely identifying it isn’t enough to protect them.

2) So, the second element assists women to work through the emotional challenges such situations have for them, while strengthening their ability to defend their sexual rights. Many women’s resistance to physically or emotionally hurting another is a misplaced virtue in the context of defending themselves. And thinking about possible scenarios in advance helps.

3) The program also provides self-defence training focused on resistance of known men, who often present an unanticipated threat. Every woman leaves the session with a personal ‘tool box’ of the most effective verbal and physical strategies she would be willing to use to protect herself against an acquaintance who is threatening her well-being.

4) Finally, the program offers high-quality sexual information and a context for exploring and talking about their own sexual desires and relationship values. This speeds up their ability to identify and take action against undesirable behaviour.

Our study shows that together, these elements prepare women emotionally, mentally and physically to resist men’s sexual assault attempts. Almost 900 first-year female students at three Canadian universities were randomly assigned to receive either commonly available pamphlets on sexual assault and access to a knowledgeable person, or this new 12-hour sexual assault resistance program. Their completed surveys (done at the beginning of the program, immediately after, and then six and twelve months later) found that, in contrast to the control group, those enrolled in the program experienced 46 per cent fewer completed rapes, 63 per cent fewer attempted rapes, and 34 per cent fewer other unwanted sexual contacts across the following year.

No other sexual violence program has showed a benefit approaching this size or duration.

Clearly, stopping sexual violence requires multiple approaches. Although previous programs focused on men have had little success, we should keep trying. And bystander intervention workshops, like the one we use on my home campus, can move us toward longer term cultural change. In the meantime, faster and more effective resistance by women can sometimes minimize the harm perpetrators are able to cause right now.

Charlene Senn is principal investigator for a study on sexual assault prevention in the June edition of The New England Journal of Medicine. She is a professor of social psychology at the University of Windsor.