Female first-year students who completed a sexual assault resistance education program experienced 63% fewer attempted rapes and 46% fewer completed rapes than those who did not complete the program.
The study, recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, focused on women in their freshman year at university - a population at high risk of sexual assault.
A recent study reported by Medical News Today found that around 37% of women surveyed at a New York university said they had experienced attempted or completed rape between the age of 14 and sophomore year, with around 9% revealing they had experienced such sexual abuse in their freshmen year.
Lead study author Dr. Charlene Senn, psychology and women's studies professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, and colleagues note the devastating effects sexual abuse can have on women:
"Being sexually assaulted can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, alcohol use and decreased safer-sex practices, among other negative health outcomes. In addition to the specific health consequences for the woman, the social and financial costs to society are also high."
Past studies have investigated the effectiveness of educational workshops aimed at reducing women's risk of sexual assault, but Dr. Senn and colleagues note that such studies have produced "inconsistent results."
Dr. Senn has spent the past decade identifying the best ways women can curb men's unwanted sexual advances at an early stage, as well as the best ways women can defend themselves against their abuser, with the aim of reducing their risk of rape.
As a result, she developed the Enhanced Assess Acknowledge Sexual Assault Resistance Program (EAAA) and tested its efficacy in this latest study, with the help of colleagues from the University of Guelph, the University of Calgary - both in Canada - and Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, MA.
One additional rape prevented for every 22 women enrolled in EAAA program
The team enrolled 893 female first-year students aged 17-24 years from the universities of Windsor, Calgary and Guelph to their study. The students were randomized to either the EAAA program or a control group, involving exposure to brochures providing information on sexual assault - which the team says is currently standard practice in most universities.
- Around 17.7 million women in the US have been the victim of attempted or completed rape
- It is not only women who are victims of sexual assault; around 1 in 33 American men have experienced attempted or completed rape in their lifetime
- Around 4 in 5 sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.
Students randomized to the EAAA program underwent four 3-hour sessions in which they were provided with information and skills on how to assess their risk of sexual assault in the presence of male acquaintances.
These students were also taught how to overcome emotional barriers to engage in verbal and physical self-defense if they find themselves in a threatening situation. In addition, the sessions aimed to help women understand their own sexual desires, values and boundaries and rights.
One year after the EAAA program was completed, all students were asked to report any incidence of attempted or completed rape over the past 12 months, as well as any other incidence of nonconsensual sexual contact.
Compared with students in the control group, those who completed the EAAA program were found to have experienced 63% fewer attempted rapes and 46% fewer completed rapes.
"What this means in practical terms is that enrolling 22 women in the EAAA resistance program would prevent one additional rape from occurring," explains Dr. Senn.
The researchers also identified lower rates of attempted coercion and nonconsensual sexual contact among students who completed the EAAA program, compared with students in the control group.
According to the team, the EAAA program is the first in North America to demonstrate positive outcomes for longer than a few months, and the study is the first to show how resistance training may not only reduce a woman's risk of rape but may reduce their risk of other nonconsensual sexual abuse.
Explaining the importance of their findings, Dr. Senn says:
"What this shows us is that, while we wait for effective programs for men or for cultural shifts in attitudes to happen, there is something practical we can do to give young women the tools they need to better protect themselves from sexual assault.
The health and social consequences of sexual assault can be serious and long term for victims. We know that the EAAA program works and see it as an important step in empowering young women to resist unwanted sexual activity and enjoy their sexual lives."
Talking to the Associated Press, psychologist Mary Koss, of the University of Arizona, said the study results are "startling."
"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."