SAN FRANCISCO -- Educational programs aimed at helping women reduce their risk of sexual assault may not be very effective, a new study suggests.
Researchers at Ohio State University followed up with 54 women seven months after they participated in a short sexual assault education program. The results showed these women were just as likely to experience sexual assault after participating in the program as a group of women who didn’t participate.
“It’s a discouraging finding,” said Kim Breitenbecher, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State’s Newark campus. “There was a lot of effort put into making the program work, but no real success.”
These findings, however, are consistent with the few other studies that have examined similar programs for women. At most, the programs seem to help women learn more about sexual assault, without helping them avoid it, she said.
Breitenbecher conducted the study with Michael Scarce of the University of California at San Francisco. Their results were presented Aug. 17 in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
The study involved 94 women in central Ohio who volunteered to participate. Many, but not all, were college students. The average age was 20. At the beginning of the study, all the women completed survey instruments that examined such things as their knowledge about sexual assault, perception of risk, and history of assault. About half of the women then participated in a 1.5 hour sexual assault risk reduction program in which they learned issues such as how to effectively communicate their sexual intentions, and how to recognize and avoid dating behaviors that are related to assault. The program’s content emphasized that most women are assaulted by men they know. The other half of the women did not participate in the program.
Seven months later, the women were reassessed. The researchers found that about 33 percent of the women in both groups --those that participated in the program and those who didn’t -- reported some kind of sexual assault since the study began. (This prevalence rate is consistent with those found in other studies.) The researchers used a broad definition of sexual assault which could include rape, attempted rape, and women who felt pressured to have sex by a man with a position of authority, such as boss or teacher.
Breitenbecher led a study one year ago that examined the effectiveness of a similar program at Ohio State, but the results were also negative. The program had been changed before the current study in the hopes it would now have a positive impact. “We really couldn’t find any evidence that either program affected the sexual assault rate,” Breitenbecher said.
One of the reasons for the program’s failure may be that a 1.5 hour session isn’t long enough to make a real difference, Breitenbecher said. But it may be even more important to re-focus efforts on educating men to keep them from assaulting.
“Obviously, there’s only a limited number of things that a potential victim can do to reduce the risk of an assault. It may be more effective to prevent the assaults in the first place.”
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