Campus sexual assault risk cut nearly in half by self-defense program

Classes prepared students for acquaintance attacks

See EAB's take on this story.

A class that taught female freshmen how to avoid rape dramatically lowered their risk of being sexually assaulted, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers conducted a randomized trial of first-year female students across three Canadian campuses. About half received only brochures and a quick lecture, while the others attended several  "empowerment self-defense" classes, which cover physical maneuvers for defense, assessing risk, and setting personal boundaries. Researchers surveyed the women one year later about their experiences.

About 5% of the self-defense group reported being raped over the course of the year—compared with nearly 10% of women in the brochure group. The difference in attempted rapes was even greater. Only 3.4% of women in the self-defense group reported an attempted rape, compared with 9.3% of their brochure-group peers.

Charlene Senn, the study's lead author, says she believes the key component was the program's focus on acquaintance rape. Young women are taught to watch out for strangers, she says, but attacks are much more likely to come from someone the victim knows.

This can be dangerous because people are less likely to use force against someone they know, Senn explains.

So women in the classes role play through different situations, preparing for the possibility that they could be acquainted with their attacker. They also learn to break wrist holds and chokeholds, and strategies to use at parties, such as buddy systems.

Many in the field are praising the trial, but some have expressed concern about the program's focus on potential victims rather than potential perpetrators.

The study "places the onus for prevention on potential victims, possibly obscuring the responsibility of perpetrators and others," writes CDC epidemiologist Kathleen C. Basile in an editorial accompanying the study. In spite of this, she acknowledges, the study identifies some important strategies.

Senn acknowledges that empowerment self-defense is not a complete solution, but says it is an essential part of a solution. And advocates point out that, unlike bystander intervention, the program is effective immediately.

"Bystander education is a long-term project… whereas, I could teach someone empowerment self-defense today and they could use it at the party tonight," says Jocelyn Hollander, a University of Oregon researcher who completed a similar, smaller study last year (Hoffman, New York Times, 6/10; Healy, Los Angeles Times, 6/10; Straus, Quartz, 6/11).

EAB's take

Liz Brown, Student Affairs Forum

Risk reduction trainings can play an important role in an institution’s sexual violence prevention strategy, but EAB research demonstrates that preventing sexual violence requires a community-wide commitment to creating a safe and welcoming climate for all students on campus. Our recent publications and webconferences profile examples of promising prevention programs, how to coordinate prevention programming across campus, and how to build a university infrastructure to address sexual violence in the long-term. To learn more, see our Sexual Violence Prevention Resource Hub.

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

Next in Today's Briefing

Is HEA reauthorization on track or doomed? Depends on whom you ask.

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague