As many as a quarter of women in college experience sexual assault at some point during their four years on campus, and while some colleges use rape prevention programs, many of these programs have not been tested for their effectiveness.
However, a recent study found that a new program, called the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance program, could reduce the risk of rape among college women by nearly 50 percent during participants' freshman years. The researchers are now taking steps to make the program more accessible to other colleges.
Here are some methods used by the program to prevent sexual assault.
Identify risky situations
People often think that rapes occur when someone is walking home alone at night, or sitting in an unlocked car, and is attacked by a stranger. But in reality, about 80 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and about half of rapes occur either at home or within 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of home, according to RAINN, an anti-sexual assault organization.
It's not necessarily "walking home alone at night," but rather, being isolated that increases the risk for rape, because it gives a perpetrator an advantage, said Charlene Senn, a professor of applied social psychology and women's studies at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, who developed the program.
So one high-risk situation for rape could be if a woman goes to a room at a party where no one can hear her, Senn said.
But women can take steps to undermine perpetrator advantages, Senn said. For example, at a party, a woman could make sure that everyone knowns where she is going to be, and ask people to come get her after a certain amount of time.
Trust your gut feeling
Before a sexual assault, women often say they felt like "something was off," about the perpetrator's behavior — the person was acting in ways that made the woman feel uncomfortable. But women don't always trust this feeing. Senn's new program on rape prevention aims to reinforce the idea that women are right to trust their feelings, which may prevent a risky situation from progressing.
Understand that perpetrators could be someone you know
If a perpetrator is someone you know, it may be difficult to come to terms with the idea that this person is a threat to you. Women may feel like they need to be polite, and not hurt people's feelings. These feelings are understandable, but they can delay action that could be effective in preventing rape.
For example, a woman may be alone in her dorm room when her roommate's boyfriend stops by to visit, and insists on coming in even though the roommate isn't there, Senn said. The boyfriend could then act in ways that make the woman feel uncomfortable, but she hesitates to do something because she thinks her roommate will be upset.
"These are all perfectly normal reactions to abnormal threat, but they delay action," Senn said.
Senn's program also teaches ways to help women overcome these emotional barriers, so they can take action more quickly.
Use verbal or physical resistance
If a perpetrator is someone you know, a normal reaction to the individual's behavior is to plead with the person to stop, but this is not usually effective at preventing rape, Senn said. Women may think, "'if he only knew more clearly' — but you’ve been clear," Senn said.
The most effective ways to fight back during sexual assault are to use forceful verbal resistance — such as yelling loudly or swearing in the perpetrator's face — and physical resistance, such as tactics taught in self-defense, Senn said.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
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.