A Campus Rape Risk Reduction Program That “Works” Doesn’t Help Much

By Katie Feifer

Let’s not get too excited and happy about the good news.

A new study done by researchers on three Canadian campuses and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that providing first year students a robust program of “rape prevention”, including self defense tactics, understanding what constitutes consent and sexual assault, and strategies for staying safe on campus significantly reduced those women’s risk of being raped or sexually assaulted compared to a control group only given a brochure about sexual assault.

The New York Times was pleased to trumpet the good news in an article headlined “College Rape Prevention Proves a Rare Success.”  The opening line embellished the point: “A program that trained first-year female college students to avoid rape substantially lowered their risk of being sexually assaulted, a rare success against a problem that has been resistant to many prevention efforts...”

Why are we not so excited, and in fact cringing a little bit at this good news?

Because the study findings, and even more the news coverage of the results, once again put the onus on women to take steps not to get themselves raped. Again we have to remind everyone that the onus belongs on the small number of men who are offenders not to rape women, and on us as a society to stop perpetrators from perpetrating and hold them accountable when they do.

Those who take a course like this can lower their personal risk. Which is fine as far as it goes. That just means that the rapists will find other women to assault. It doesn’t address the cause of the problem, which is perpetrators' impunity to commit sexual violence crimes. As author and activist Jaclyn Friedman notes, quoted in Jessica Valenti’s excellent Guardian article,

Rapes are perpetrated by a tiny percentage of men who know what they’re doing and who rape again and again - they’re just going to find another target”...Friedman, who also co-edited an anthology on ending rape with me in 2008, said: “So just because these girls [who took the training] are less likely to be picked, it doesn’t mean there’s less rape on campus ... This isn’t rape prevention, it’s rape protection.

The findings from the study are encouraging, to be sure. It’s not a bad thing to provide women some tools that can help keep them safe. But we’ll say it again: it’s not enough and it’s not where we need to focus to get to the roots of the problem.

And there are other studies (like one from Kentucky showing a 50% reduction in self-reported sexual violence perpetration in high schools) that occurs when other strategies are utilized. The Green Dot program focuses on bystander intervention to engage the whole community to stop perpetration – and reframe sexual violence as not normal.

Valenti summarizes well:

We need more than just one study and more than just one training to stop rape, not just on college campuses, but everywhere. Small, short-term solutions that work for some women are terrific and I hope we fund a lot of them. But what we need more are lasting solutions for all of us - solutions that don’t just change statistics, but the culture.