College Rape Prevention Program Cuts Risk by 50%

A walkway on a college campus
(Image credit: Sean Pavone/

A new program aimed at helping college women avoid rape reduced the risk of rape by nearly 50 percent during participants' freshman year, a new study finds.

In the study, more than 400 women at three universities in Canada took part in a rape resistance program, which consisted of four 3-hour sessions that included lectures, discussion on rape prevention, and ways to practice what they learned. A second group of more than 400 women was offered brochures with general information about sexual assault.

One year later, nearly 10 percent of the women in the brochure group reported that they had been raped, where a perpetrator used force, threats or incapacitating drugs to rape her. In contrast, about 5 percent of women who participated in the rape avoidance program reported being raped during that same period.

Women in the rape resistance group were also less likely to experience an attempted rape, where the perpetrator tried to rape the woman but was not successful. About 9 percent of the women in the brochure group reported an attempted rape, compared with 3.4 percent of women who participated in the program, according to the findings, published in the June 11 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study "proves that providing women with knowledge and tools can increase their ability to defend themselves, and reduce the severity of the sexual violence they experience," said study co-author Charlene Senn, a professor of applied social psychology and women's studies at the University of Windsor in Ontario. [4 Things Women Can Do to Lower Their Risk of Sexual Assault]

Preventing rape

Most college programs aimed at preventing sexual assault have not been studied to see whether they are effective, and the new program is so far the only one to demonstrate that it can decrease instances of sexual violence that women experience for at least a year, Senn said.

The new program — called the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance program — has several components. It aims to help women identify situations where there is a high risk for sexual violence, and figure out how they might create disadvantages for potential perpetrators.

For example, being isolated — such as being in a room at a party where no one can hear you — is advantageous to a perpetrator. Therefore, to reduce the risk of being raped, a woman could make sure that everyone at the party knows she is going to be in a certain room, and ask people to come and get her at a certain time, Senn said.

The program also helps women think about ways to overcome emotional barriers to acting if the perpetrator is someone they know, Senn said. One example of such a barrier could be that, if a perpetrator is her roommate's boyfriend, a woman may delay yelling or physically fighting off the perpetrator because she thinks it would upset her roommate, Senn said.

Women who participate in the program also practice forceful verbal and physical resistance, which are the most effective ways of fighting back against perpetrators of rape, Senn said.

Although women cannot control a perpetrator's behavior, women in the resistance group were less likely to say they had experienced an attempted rape, the researchers said. This may be because the resistance program increased women's ability to detect dangerous situations very early, and get out of those situations before they progressed, Senn said.

No quick fix

Kate Carey, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University School of Public Health who was not involved in the new study, said the findings "clearly show a benefit of the intervention, which substantially reduced the risk of completed and attempted rape."

The new study improves upon earlier studies of sexual assault prevention programs because it was larger, followed the participants over a longer period, and looked at behavior outcomes such as completed rape, rather than people's attitudes or their intentions, Carey said.

The study also found that for every 22 women who completed the program, one rape would be prevented over a one-year period, which suggests that "dissemination [of the program] on campuses could have [a] good return on investment," Carey said.

Senn said that other sexual assault prevention programs, including ones that ask people in the community to speak up if they see something dangerous happening, are still needed to prevent sexual assault. "There is no quick fix. We need to make stopping sexual violence everyone's issue," Senn said.

However, programs that focus on changing attitudes in an entire community may take longer to have an effect. "We can't wait to give women the tools they need to fight back," Senn said.

The researchers are currently developing sessions to train instructors for the resistance program so that universities can develop their own workshops based on the new program. In the meantime, the full program scripts are available online in the study appendix, Senn said.

The researchers noted that because women in the study self-reported rape, it's possible that women in the resistance group underreported assaults because they believed that they should be able to resist them. But it's also possible that women in the resistance group were more sensitized to sexual assaults, which could increase reports of sexual assault in this group, the researchers said."

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.