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Is effective rape prevention training still ‘victim blaming?’

Sexual violence  at colleges and universities is (and perhaps always has been) at epidemic levels – sexual assaults are reported on college campuses at a rate far, far higher than within the general population. Now, a new study from psychologists at the University of Windsor suggests that a novel, comprehensive program aimed at teaching potential victims how to recognize, avoid and even fight back against sexual violence has been a resounding success. While the program’s effectiveness has been universally praised, some wonder whether putting too much emphasis on potential victims takes focus off of the root cause of sexual violence – the perpetrators.

University of Windsor psychologist Charlene Senn spent 10 years developing the Enhanced Assess Acknowledge Act Sexual Assault Resistance Program (EAAA), aimed at first year university students. Senn believes the program is comprehensive, as the three 4-hour sessions are designed to empower young women with the information and skills necessary to assess risk and overcome emotional barriers that suppress sexual assault resistance. The women also learn verbal and physical self-defense techniques, and the course also helps them explore their own sexual values, desires, boundaries and rights.

Administered between September 2011 and February 2013, the program is by all accounts effective. 893 women enrolled in the study, 451 of which went through the EAAA program. Compared to the control group (which received only pamphlets discussing sexual violence), the experimental group experienced 46% fewer completed rapes and 63% fewer attempted rapes.

“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 percent 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.”

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Kathleen C. Basile of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control cautions that while any effective program like EAAA is a positive development, preventing sexual violence is ultimately a community problem, not just a victim problem. She says that relying solely on programs like EAAA places too much onus on victims, and should be paired with efforts that target both potential perpetrators and bystanders.

“Empowering women to resist violence and protect themselves, as described by Senn et al., is a positive and sensible part of sexual violence prevention, and there is a long history behind these kinds of approaches. However, women-focused approaches used in isolation for prevention not only deflect responsibility from potential perpetrators, but also represent only a partial solution. We can have a greater effect through combined efforts that also focus on potential perpetrators, bystanders, and broader community-level influences,” she wrote.

Despite being almost universally reviled, sexual violence is a surprisingly contentious issue. Most people tend to take absolutist approaches, taking the stance that either perpetrators are the only people worth targeting with prevention programs, or, like avoiding a bad neighborhood late at night, victims are responsible for their own well-being. While neither opinion is completely wrong or right, the study conducted by Dr. Senn and those cited by Dr. Basile suggest that the real key to preventing sexual violence is a wholly comprehensive approach.