An innovative sexual-assault resistance program designed by University of Windsor professor Charlene Senn has been shown to substantially reduce the incidence of rape and attempted rape among first-year university women, according to a study published June 11 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Dr. Senn, professor of psychology and women’s studies, spent 10 years developing and testing the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance program (EAAA), designed to help women stop aggressive behavior at an early stage and prevent sexual assaults from occurring.
The program consists of four sessions of three hours each that give participants information and skills on how to assess the risk posed by acquaintances and how to use verbal and physical self-defense techniques. The sessions teach how to develop problem-solving strategies to reduce the advantages of the perpetrator, to assess danger in situations and to overcome emotional barriers to resisting sexual aggression. Participants practise resisting verbal coercion and get self-defense training that focuses on acquaintances rather than strangers.
“It really is about giving [women] knowledge, tools and confidence to use those tools,” said Dr. Senn. It is a considerably longer program than other sexual-assault resistance programs that have been tried.
The program was assessed in a year-long randomized controlled trial involving 893 first-year female students at the universities of Calgary, Guelph and Windsor; 451 of the women were randomly-assigned to participate in the EAAA program and 442 were assigned to a control group. Those in the control group were given access to brochures containing general information about sexual assault and where to seek legal and medical help in the event of a rape.
Surveys conducted one year later found that of those who participated in the EAAA program, 23 women or 5.2 percent experienced a completed rape versus 42 women or 9.8 percent of those in the control group – a reduction of 46 percent. In addition, 15 women or 3.4 percent of those in the resistance group experienced an attempted rape versus 40 women or 9.3 percent of the control group – a 63 percent reduction.
The women in the program experienced lower rates of attempted coercion and non-consensual sexual contact. The outcomes suggest that the program may have increased women’s ability to detect and interrupt harmful behavior at an early stage, according to the study.
Dr. Senn said she hopes universities will move to adopt the program now that the results are known. She plans to develop a train-the-trainer program so that universities can send staff members to receive instruction from Dr. Senn and then, in turn, will be able to train facilitators at their campuses to deliver the program. There would be no cost to receive the training, she said, but universities “would have to get their head around the fact that it’s a long program” and not something that could be “done in an hour during orientation.”
Universities in Canada and the U.S. have come under increased pressure to educate students about sexual assault but most programs haven’t been evaluated or haven’t proved effective in reducing the incidence of sexual assault, the study notes. This is the first program developed in North America that shows positive long-term outcomes. Researchers continued to follow trial participants for up to two years after completing the program to see if its effects were sustained but that data hasn’t been analyzed yet.
Previous research has shown that from 20 to 25 percent of women will experience a sexual assault while at university; the risk is highest during their first two years. Most assaults are committed by men who are known by the victim or part of her social circle.
The trial was conducted from September 2011 to February 2013 and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Dr. Senn led a team of researchers that included 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 in Boston.
U of Windsor has emerged as a leader in designing and implementing sexual-assault prevention strategies. It was one of the first Canadian universities to adopt a bystander-training program and incorporate it into its curriculum. That initiative, introduced by Dr. Senn and two colleagues, was offered to more than 1,300 students this past academic year.
The bystander program is a long-term solution aimed at changing the climate on university campuses. “I hope that in five years if we can keep that up and reach that tipping point and change the climate so there will be fewer men able to coerce,” said Dr. Senn. “It’s only then that we won’t need [resistance training] programs for women.”