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Sexual Assault Prevention Programs Work

Simple interventions reduce assaults by more than half.

You’ve probably seen news items about the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses and in the military—everything from uninvited groping, to forced oral sex and intercourse, to vicious gangbangs. These crimes are not inevitable. The vast majority of college and military sex assaults occur because of a combination of alcohol, impulsiveness, and naiveté, and because friends don’t intervene in time to stop them.

By focusing on assault triggers, in the past few years, colleges and the military have developed prevention programs that have proven remarkably effective. In a 1987 survey at the University of New Hampshire, 37 percent of women students said they’d been sexually assaulted, but in 2012, after campus-wide implementation of a comprehensive prevention program, the figure dropped by more than half to 16 percent. And at the U.S. Navy’s boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois, a similar program has reduced sexual assaults by 60 percent. So while prevention programs don’t reduce assaults to zero, they really help prevent sexual exploitation and violence.

One Young Woman in Five

A New York Times review of prevalence studies suggests that today, without prevention programs, a record 20 percent of women college students suffer some form of sexual assault. Meanwhile, from 2010 to 2013, reports of military sexual assaults increased 37 percent.

Are these increases real? Authorities say no, that reports have risen because increasingly vocal women activists have persuaded more victims to report them, and a greater proportion have, spotlighting a serious problem that has festered below the radar for far too long.

For years, colleges and the military minimized sexual assault risk, in part because officials were ignorant of its extent, and in part because addressing it threatened college enrollment and military recruiting. David Sullivan is a district attorney in Western Massachusetts who has prosecuted dozens of college sexual assaults: “Can you imagine telling parents their daughters had a one-in-five chance of being hit by a campus bus? No one would send girls to college.”

Who Gets Assaulted? And Why?

But as increased activism made the problem undeniable, researchers have identified the elements that largely govern risk:

• Naiveté. A study by United Educators (UE), an insurance consortium of 1,200 colleges, found that 63 percent of college sexual assault accusers are first-year students. In the military, most victims are among the youngest soldiers. First-year college students and raw recruits are inexperienced at sexual negotiations, particularly saying “no” emphatically—especially when alcohol is involved.

• Alcohol. In the vast majority of young-adult sexual assaults, both accusers and accused are drunk. A UE review of college rapes from 2005 to 2010 showed that 60 percent of accusers were so drunk that they had no clear memory of the assault. In the military, the situation is similar.

• Power/prestige. Most military sexual assaults involve perpetrators foisting themselves on victims of lower rank. In college, the issue is not rank but prestige, notably the cachet of being an athlete. Male athletes comprise around 10 percent of the college population, but according to UE, commit 25 percent of sexual assaults. Athletes feel like big men on campus and often believe that the girls are theirs for the taking.

• Bystanders. Those acquainted with accusers and accused often realize that things are getting out of hand, but take no action to stop it.

Sexual Assault Prevention 101

The details differ but colleges and the military have developed similar prevention programs:

• Blunt talk during orientation. On the bus to Naval boot camp, before recruits have even reached the gate, they watch a video featuring the camp commander who declares in no uncertain terms that today’s U.S. military culture does not tolerate sexual assault. During boot camp, officers reiterate this message repeatedly: “Do you think Ms. Sloppy Drunk can give real consent?” “If you step over the line, you’re looking at years in prison.” “Not saying ‘no,’ is much different than saying ‘yes.’” College orientation programs are similar, with some schools instituting extra-forceful rape-prevention sessions for incoming athletes.

Alcohol abuse awareness. Alcohol is the most problematic drug among young adults, and rape is its collateral damage. In the 1980s, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving first advocated designated drivers, many pundits scoffed that young party-goers would never voluntarily choose to abstain in the name of preventing drunk driving. But today, many teens and young adults select designated drivers—and drunk driving deaths have plummeted by half. College and military assault-prevention programs advocate something similar, one friend staying sufficiently sober to keep drunk friends from getting into trouble. Again, skeptics have scoffed, but as studies show that prevention programs work, the nay-sayers are changing their minds.

• Bystander intervention. Assault-prevention programs say, Don’t just stand there, do something—anything to stop bad behavior before it becomes assaultive. Jane Stapleton, of the University of New Hampshire’s program, says a little creativity goes a long way. If a bystander sees things escalating toward rape, she recommends: Turn on the lights. Turn off the music. “Accidentally” spill a drink on overly aggressive guys. Pull the girl onto the dance floor. Or tell the guy that another girl has the hots for him in the next room—anything to interrupt the interaction. One of Stapleton’s favorite interventions came from a young woman who loudly told her drunk girlfriend—and the guy who was all over her: “Here’s the tampon you asked for.”

New Focus on Young Men

Traditional rape-education program have rightly focused on the trauma suffered by victims. The new programs continue this, but also appeal to young men to keep their friends out of trouble—and prison: If you were crossing the line, wouldn’t you want a friend to step in? If you see a friend going too far, it’s your responsibility to intervene.

Bystander-intervention training exhorts young men to be proactive—and the message resonates. University of New Hampshire researchers enrolled some male students in an assault-prevention program. A few months after it ended, 12 percent of non-participating campus men reported intervening in a potential assault, but in the trained group, the figure was three times that, 38 percent.

What about predatory serial rapists? The new programs may not deter them, but as tolerance for sexual assault gets replaced by zero tolerance, they are more likely to be identified sooner and imprisoned faster.

Of course, just as designated drivers have not reduced drunk driving deaths to zero, sexual-assault-prevention programs don’t stop all rapes. But the Navy and New Hampshire programs have reduced assaults by more than half, and that’s progress worth celebrating—and emulating.

 

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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