The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 3, 2017

Most sexual assault prevention programs are victim focused and lack rigorous evaluation

November 3, 2017

Preventing recidivism has been a major thrust in the study of criminal justice and has become a central goal for public-private partnerships in states and localities. Overwhelmingly, recidivism research focuses on remedial actions for the people who commit crimes, rather than on victims.

In this context, a campus anti–sexual assault program that trains women to avoid becoming victims of crime presents a puzzling piece of otherwise good news. The Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act (EAAA) sexual assault resistance education program underwent a randomized controlled trial—the “gold standard” of program evaluations—at three Canadian universities. The evaluation found that first-year undergraduate women who participated in EAAA were about half as likely as women in the control group to be raped in the 12 months after completing the program.

Advising students to take common-sense measures to avoid becoming victims is not a bad idea, but it does not prevent sexual assault. In addition to the change in approach that some police and prosecutors now take in handling rape and sexual assault cases, a truly comprehensive approach to ending campus sexual assault must include the campus sexual assault equivalent of recidivism reduction: evidence-based approaches to teaching young people about consent and healthy relationships.

Much of the early research on why people commit sexual assault focused on convicted rapists, skewing the data in ways that obscured the transgressions that can occur simply when consent is not understood, and which have now been documented by countless women as part of the #MeToo campaign.

Few campus sexual assault prevention programs have undergone a rigorous evaluation like EAAA. Of programs that have, most focus on women and treat them as likely victims. Some focus on both men and women, and only one specifically targets young men.

These programs and the research surrounding them are overwhelmingly victim focused. But to address persistent sexual assault, we must go beyond building awareness of potential dangers and undo a culture that promotes a toxic form of masculinity.

College-age women are four times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted as women in the general population. Among US undergraduates, 23 percent of women and 5 percent of men experience rape or sexual assault, and the majority know their attacker. More than 90 percent of campus sexual assaults go unreported.

The voices elevated by #MeToo demonstrate the prevalence of rape and sexual assault among women and show how perpetrators (usually men) view these actions as inconsequential.

Their stories show breaches of trust and social convention from male friends, bosses, and family members. They show violations laughed off as jokes understood only by those who aren’t “too sensitive.” They show the pervasive, insidious message that women and girls should expect vulgarity, aggression, and loss of bodily autonomy for no other reason than existing.

Programs like EAAA may empower women to use common-sense measures to protect themselves, but that should not be the only path to a world without sexual assault. We need to develop and rigorously evaluate what does and does not prevent the crime in the first place. 

Amanda Gould (center), an American University student on a student government Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Task Force dealing with campus sexual assaults and violence, speaks with fellow students during a school forum about the issue at American University in Washington, DC, November 10, 2014. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

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