The students who have returned to college campuses this fall have unprecedented access to information about their schools’ record on sexual violence. Thanks to the first-ever Presidential Task Force on sexual assault, anyone can do a simple web search to discover which universities are in violation of federal civil rights laws for mishandling rape reports.
There is a well-researched rape prevention strategy that has been studied in college settings and has been shown to reduce rates of sexual violence victimization, yet the federal government is ignoring it. That strategy is self-defense training.
The transparency afforded by the website notalone.gov, which the White House launched last spring, is just part of the Obama administration’s plan to ensure that our nation’s colleges are taking the problem of sexual violence seriously.
The White House plan includes confidential counseling for survivors; model sexual misconduct policies that universities can adopt; blueprints for educating campus law enforcement officers about the trauma caused by rape; and even a public service announcement that encourages men to intervene when they see their peers committing sexual violence.
When I began working as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence 20 years ago, I could not have imagined such a thoughtful and proactive response from any presidential administration. Most important, the federal government wants colleges to do more than just respond effectively when a student reports a rape. The administration, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control, is working to prevent sexual violence. Last April, the CDC released a preliminary plan for colleges to initiate sexual violence prevention programs that have been shown by research to be effective.
So what does effective mean? To be considered effective by the CDC, a rape prevention program must be evaluated by academic researchers who compare students who receive the program to similar students who do not. In some cases, evaluators randomly assign students to receive the program. Also, for the federal government to consider a program to be effective, it must do more than just increase students’ knowledge about sexual violence. It actually has to reduce rates of sexual violence perpetration and victimization.
This is laudable and promising, but the CDC identifies only two sexual violence prevention programs that meet their criteria: Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries. And there’s a problem: Both programs have been shown to be effective not on college campuses, but in middle schools.
There’s a bigger problem. There is a well-researched rape prevention strategy that has been studied in college settings and has been shown to reduce rates of sexual violence victimization, yet the federal government is ignoring it. That strategy is self-defense training.
A recent study by University of Oregon professor Jocelyn Hollander followed two groups of college women over the course of one year. One group had taken a self-defense course, the other had not. Twelve percent of women in the self-defense group were sexually assaulted, compared to more than 30 percent of the untrained group. What’s more, the self-defense group reported less severe assaults.
As far back as 2005, University of Illinois professors Leanne Brecklin and Sarah Ullman found that college women who had taken self-defense training were more likely to interrupt attempted rapes.
The CDC identifies only two sexual violence prevention programs that meet their criteria: Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries. And there’s a problem: Both programs have been shown to be effective not on college campuses, but in middle schools.
The self-defense curricula that deliver these results give women awareness and verbal skills to refuse unwanted touch. They teach physical self-protection skills, and they give women strategies that are useful in sexual assault situations in which the perpetrator is someone they know. The most important characteristic of effective self-defense training is that it makes clear that the responsibility for sexual assault is the perpetrator’s.
I respect the rationale behind not including self-defense in federal guidelines for colleges. The CDC and other sexual violence prevention advocates want to stop people from raping. The thinking goes that perpetrators, not intended victims, are creating the problem of sexual violence. I appreciate that people are wary of sending women the message that they are responsible for stopping their attacker. But findings from studies such as those by Hollander, Brecklin and Ullman deserve the CDC’s attention.
Self-defense programs should be expanded and studied in larger groups to determine whether the results remain as strong. Until we know more about how to stop people from sexually assaulting, the federal government needs to pursue every promising strategy toward prevention. Teaching college women self-defense should be chief among them.