TORONTO - Young females attending university are known to be at significant risk for sexual assault, but a prevention program jointly tested on three Canadian campuses suggests the incidence of such violence can be dramatically reduced.
The program, which was provided by researchers to a group of female first-year students at the universities of Windsor, Guelph and Calgary, cut the number of sexual assaults almost in half among participants compared to those not enrolled in the 12-hour course.
"What we saw was a 46 per cent decrease in complete rape across 12 months, compared with women in the control group," said Charlene Senn, lead author of the study published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.
There was also a 63 per cent decrease in the number of attempted sexual assaults, as well as drops in other kinds of non-consensual sexual contact and attempted coercion, said Senn, a social psychologist at the University of Windsor.
Among students in the control group, 42 — or almost 10 per cent —suffered a sexual assault, compared to 22 — or 5.2 per cent — of those who had taken the resistance course, the study found.
"I think it showed that as a short-term solution, when women have knowledge and skills and confidence, that they can stand up for their sexual rights and fight back, if necessary; that they are able to live their life more fully and to protect themselves," she said Wednesday from Windsor.
The 2011-2013 study involved 451 female students who had been randomly selected to take part in the prevention program and 442 control subjects assigned to a session where brochures on sexual assault were provided, a common practice at many post-secondary institutions.
Research has shown that about one in four women will experience some form of sexual assault during four years on campus, with the first two years posing the highest risk.
"Most young women from the time they've been girls, they're strongly socialized to fear stranger rape," said Senn, pointing to such stereotypical scenarios as being attacked in an underground parking lot or while walking home late from the library.
"But the risk is much higher from men they know.
"Most people would think about that field walking across campus, but they wouldn't necessarily think about the situation that's more — much more — high-risk, which is that room off at a party where no one can hear because the music's really loud."
The prevention program used in the study taught female students to recognize the warning signs that they might be in danger of being sexually assaulted and how to stop that from occurring, including using "forceful verbal and forceful physical" strategies.
In one session, participants were shown effective self-defence methods, based on Wen-do.
"Women are taught how to strike and kick and so on, but they're also taught how to break wrist holds and throat holds and choke holds — and how to get somebody off you when you're on a soft surface and they're pressing you down," Senn said.
"So we're giving women the information, the skills and the practice to more quickly identify a situation as dangerous and get out or use forceful resistance if necessary."
Senn would like to see every university and college institute similar prevention programs.
But she conceded that by the time students reach that point in their education, it may already be too late.
About one-third of the female students in the study reported having been previously sexually attacked, between the ages of 14 and 18, suggesting that such prevention programs should be offered to high school girls, Senn said.
Lee Lakeman, a spokeswoman for Vancouver Rape Relief, lauded the study, saying its findings make a lot of sense.
"I think it's shocking in a way to realize that this is how little the universities would have to do to reduce rape by a considerable percentage," Lakeman, an activist in the anti-rape movement for more than 40 years, commented from Vancouver. "It points to how little effort has gone into this so far.
"In a lot of ways it's the simple application of what rape crisis centres have been saying all the way along: let women group, give them the basic information about what is going on in the world, so that their ignorance and vulnerability as young women is not a weapon. And then give them the tiniest bit of psychological self-defence and physical self-defence and you can make a huge dent."
Even so, Senn acknowledged that there is no quick fix to stop sexually motivated violence, and rape resistance programs are only one part of the solution. Bystanders also need to start intervening and males need to be held accountable for perpetrating such coercive acts against females, she said.
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