A Canadian study has found university women participating in a rape-prevention program involving “resistance training” were significantly less likely to be sexually assaulted in the next year.
In their New England Journal of Medicine article, Professor Charlene Senn and her colleagues report their program reduced women’s risk of rape by half: from 1 in 10 for women who did not receive the program, to 1 in 20 for those who did.
It’s an impressive result. But what does it mean for preventing rape in Australia? Should we fund women’s resistance training in Australian universities?
What is resistance training?
As important as knowing if a program works, is knowing why it works. And there’s a lot more to this program than teaching women “refusal skills” or how to say “no” clearly and assertively in the face of clear sexual aggression.
The 12-hour curriculum of the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act program includes interactive sessions to help women identify the tactics of sexually coercive men, reduce the emotional barriers to taking assertive action early, as well as providing skills in verbal and physical resistance.
The program explicitly states that the number one risk factor for rape is the presence of a sexually coercive man. Nonetheless, the program explicitly encourages women to identify and reject the early warning signs of sexual coercion.
Importantly, it also includes a module on positive sexual communication – encouraging women to actively negotiate the kind of sex that they do want.
Teach ‘don’t rape’, not ‘don’t get raped’
Of course, teaching women to resist rape is not new advice, and it is very controversial. Not least because, as many victim-survivors, scholars and advocates rightly point out, we need to stop men who rape – not place the responsibility on victims to avoid the criminal actions of others.
In fact, many studies over the years have shown that providing women with rape-avoidance strategies or resistance training can reduce their individual risk of rape victimisation. But such approaches can have only a limited effect on overall rates of rape, as sexually aggressive perpetrators will simply target other victims.
And let’s not forget that even the Canadian study’s impressive results, did not stop one in 20 university women who completed the program from becoming the victims of sexually violent men – regardless of their training in resistance.
Yet, if teaching women effective resistance can stop some rape, can it be at least part of the solution to a problem that affects one in five Australian women in their lifetime?
Challenging gender roles can prevent rape
In short – yes. In a society that teaches women to be passive, compliant and avoid confrontation, there is some merit to challenging these gender roles. Just as there is merit to challenging the gender roles that teach men to be dominant, aggressive and pursuant. When put together, these gender roles create the context for pressured, unwanted and coercive sex.