06/11/2015 10:37 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT

Sexual-assault prevention program cut rape rate nearly in half

Women at three Canadian universities who were taught tactics to prevent sexual assaults were less likely to be raped than peers who received standard brochures, researchers say of the  short-term solution.

In Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, psychologist Charlene Senn from the University of Windsor in Ontario and her team describe the effectiveness of the program in recognizing danger and resisting pressure through forceful physical and verbal resistance.

The research, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, included 451 women at the universities of Waterloo and Guelph in Ontario, and Calgary who were randomly offered the resistance training, and 442 women in the control group who received brochures like the ones commonly given out on campuses.

After one year, there were 23 completed rapes in the resistance group and 42 among those who received brochures.

"What the results show is that as few as 22 women need to receive the workshop in order for one completed rape to be averted," Senn said.

"What the program does is it help orients women to the real danger cues in situations and in men's behaviour so that they can more quickly detect risk, helps them get over the emotional obstacles to acknowledging there's danger coming from someone you know and perhaps like and then it gives them the self-defence tools they would actually use against an acquaintance."

Previous research suggests that one in four women will experience rape or attempted rape while attending university with the risk greatest during the first year. Young women are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted by male acquaintances.

While we wait for effective programs for men and cultural shifts in attitudes to stamp out the violence, Senn said the tools are a practical way for women to protect themselves.

Helpful tips

Bonita Loki Teixeira, 24, now a senior at the University of Windsor, said "knowing the cues, how to avoid being in situations where there can be the possibility of harm" and tips like keeping a close eye on any drinks she has at a party were helpful.

Jenna Harris, 21, a senior at the same school, said the program hit home in a way warnings from parents and others didn't. 

"This program was in your face, like, 'This is real. This stuff does happen,"' she said.

Kathleen Basile of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's violence prevention in Atlanta wrote a journal commentary published with the study.

Basille applauded the study's rigorous design and execution, but noted its main weakness is placing the onus on potential victims, possibly obscuring the responsibility of perpetrators and others.

Senn's approach "can be part of comprehensive multi-level approach, including a focus on younger ages and potential perpetrators, to address this public health crisis," Basille concluded.

University of Arizona psychologist Mary Koss, who was not involved in the study, developed an online survey to evaluate the training that is widely used in the research field.

"Universities should move right away to figure out how they can implement a program like this," she said. "We don't have to look at women as being so helpless and vulnerable. There are tools to empower women that can dramatically cut their risk of rape."