Sexual violence is a longstanding problem on university campuses. The recent assaults reported at Western University are the latest high-profile example. Studies in both Canada and the United States suggest that one in five young women will experience rape and one in 10 young men will perpetrate rape by the time they graduate. “Every day – on our campuses and off – women are still being confronted by men attempting to sexually assault them,” says Charlene Senn, Canada Research Chair in Sexual Violence at the University of Windsor.
While people of any gender may experience or perpetrate sexual violence, Dr. Senn underlines that it’s a distinctly gendered crime. The vast majority of victims are women, regardless of race or sexual identity. And the vast majority of perpetrators are heterosexual men. At universities, the highest incidence of sexual assault is experienced by young women in their first two years of study. And while many universities have created programs aimed at addressing sexual assault, “the actions we’ve taken have not made much of an impact,” Dr. Senn said in a recent presentation hosted by the United Nations.
But she is on a mission to change that.
Dr. Senn began her research career investigating connections between sexual violence and pornography, during her graduate training at the University of Calgary and York University. She then turned her attention to studying sexual violence and predictors of sexual coercion. Since 2005, Dr. Senn has been applying learnings from her social psychology and gender research to develop sexual violence prevention solutions, with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Stopping men perpetrating is critical to change, explains Dr. Senn. But over many decades, researchers focused on intervention programs for boys and men have found these efforts largely ineffective. Some have had backlash effects. So while another cadre of researchers continues to probe ways to prevent perpetration by men, Dr. Senn wants to act now to leverage available knowledge to improve the situation for women and girls.
Designing action based on research evidence is critical, Dr. Senn says, yet on some campuses, researchers are never consulted about sexual assault prevention initiatives. (That’s not the case at her home campus at the University of Windsor, she says.) Student services workers are sometimes left to make up information on the fly, or delegate programming to students who are left to draw from internet searches.
“It’s not that universities lack people that really care and want to make a difference,” Dr. Senn says, but often, “there’s this disjuncture between using the tools of the university and research to actually solve the problem.” The gap between intention and efficacy is why she has developed and tested a program called the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act (EAAA) Sexual Assault Resistance program, which is also known by the tagline “Flip the Script.”
It’s delivered in four three-hour sessions. In the first module (assess), women learn to recognize risk cues for sexual violence in situations and in men’s behaviour. The second module (acknowledge), highlights personal obstacles to prioritizing sexual rights in acquaintance situations, teaching women to trust their instincts. The third module (act) gives women a toolbox of skills and strategies to defend their bodies and boundaries, in collaboration with the Wen-Do Women’s Self Defence organization. “We’re told so many myths about women’s strength, and what kinds of defensive action is useful,” says Dr. Senn, who stresses that despite public perceptions to the contrary, forceful verbal and physical resistance is dramatically effective at averting sexual violence. The final module on relationships and emancipatory sexuality builds greater self-knowledge about what individuals want, value, desire and are comfortable with from potential partners, leading to earlier detection of risk and signs of danger.
“We’re told so many myths about women’s strength, and what kinds of defensive action is useful.”
Designed for women of all sexual identities, the program has always been open to transsexual women, says Dr. Senn. But its supporting research comes from the study of cisgender women, owing to a knowledge gap around its impacts on trans women. To fill that knowledge gap, Dr. Senn is collaborating on work led by Sarah Peitzmeier at the University of Michigan.
The EAAA program has been tested in a multi-site randomized control trial, and followed up to assess its long-term impact. That 2015 study revealed that one year later, young women were 46 per cent less likely to experience a completed rape if they took the program, and 63 per cent less likely to experience an attempted rape. Extrapolating its impact, Dr. Senn predicts that only 13 students need to be in a workshop for one attempted or completed rape to be averted. Importantly, the program also works for previously victimized women, which is something that resonates personally for Dr. Senn. Her experience as a survivor of sexual assault and intimate partner violence as a young woman, and frontline work at a women’s shelter early in her career, were formative influences on her research interests.
The program challenges some of society’s commonly held rape myths. One example is the idea that sexual violence is most likely to come from a stranger, when in reality it is more likely to be perpetrated by acquaintances.
At this stage of her career, Dr. Senn is excited to pass her knowledge and motivation on to younger scholars such as her former postdoctoral fellow Sara Crann, who is leading an adaptation of the EAAA program for younger, high school-aged women and girls.
“We really need to stop men perpetrating, to stop sexual violence,” says Dr. Senn. But until that social change happens, she says, there are things we can pass on to girls and women that make their lives safer now.