New rape prevention program may be the answer we’ve been looking for

Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. -- I have a couple of favorite phrases that I like to keep in my vernacular: "You don't bring a knife to a gun fight," and, "If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself."

I recently saw some news that combines the spirits of both of these phrases, and put a big smile on my volunteer victim advocate face; it chronicled a new rape prevention program that was tested at three university campuses in Canada. The result? A huge drop in the number of completed rapes of students attending those universities, according to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine June 11, 2015--and that means it could be a ray of hope for young service members at military installations, too.

The study's leader, psychologist Charlene Senn at the University of Windsor, developed the program. It has been dubbed, "The Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance program," and it consisted of four, three-hour units that involved information-providing games, mini-lectures, facilitated discussion, and application and practice activities, including how to verbally and physically resist an attacker.

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and included 451 women at the universities of Waterloo and Guelph in Ontario and the University of Calgary, who were randomly offered the resistance training. In the control group were 442 women who only received typical brochures and an opportunity to ask questions.

Ten percent of those freshmen women who were only given the pamphlets reported being raped during the following year, compared to only five percent of those who went through the interactive four-session program. Even attempted rapes were lower -- about 3 percent in the training group versus more than 9 percent in the others.

I am the type of person who, if I am spending time in a workshop or a briefing of some sort, would like to be able to walk away feeling that I acquired some useful tools to store in my proverbial tool box. I think that a cumulative 12 hours spent on recognizing danger, resisting pressure to have sex, and physical self-defense could fit that bill very nicely.

Full disclosure, I am a fairly new volunteer victim advocate, but I pay attention. Military installations and college campuses have a lot in common when it comes to young people. Both are largely populated by young adults age 18-24 who are having their first experience on their own away from home. Both may be inexperienced with alcohol, potentially leading them to make poor choices. And, as is the case with most college students, service members who experience sexual assault almost always personally know their attacker.

And then there's this startling statistic: Previous research suggests that one in four women will experience rape or attempted rape while attending college, with the risk greatest during the first year. Once again, young female service members at military installations are in a shockingly similar boat.

But this new study suggests we might be on the verge of a short-term solution to a larger cultural problem, and that's at least somewhere to start.

This program could be the first step toward empowering women to be in charge of their own health and safety without necessarily having to depend on the aid of bystanders or the questionable moral compass of potential would-be attackers. This training, combined with bystander intervention training and promoting a culture of dignity and respect that stamps out sexual harassment and sexual assault at the root, could be the winning combination we have all been waiting for.

I want to be clear; this is not about making it a woman's responsibility not to get raped as opposed to a man's responsibility not to commit rape. It's never that victim's fault for being attacked. We must still hold the assailant responsible for his actions and society responsible for not tolerating behavior that can and does lead to sexual assault. But let's not kid ourselves--there will always be those who take advantage, whatever their reasons may be, and bystanders may not always be willing to get involved. So why take that risk when there are steps we can take to reduce our risk of becoming a victim in the first place? Why not give ourselves a fighting chance if we ever do find ourselves being manipulated into a situation that might be hard to get out of?

As a woman, I would rather have the ability to potentially stop my attacker in his tracks, whether it be staying one step ahead of him with a color changing nail polish that can detect date rape drugs, or even channeling my inner Superwoman with some butt-kicking, rapist-repelling moves I learned at my women's self-defense class. As a volunteer victim advocate, I'd rather my clients have the same, without stopping to give an assailant some ineffective rambling lecture about why it's wrong for him to do what he's doing and how he's promoting rape culture by forcing himself on her. When you're in the moment, the reasons don't matter--the only object at that point is to get away and sustain as little harm to you as possible in the process.

I would love to see the Air Force adopt a similar program into our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training, and I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one. When it comes right down to it, no one is going to look out for my health and safety better than I am, and that's ok. If I had a choice in who I'd rather trust with my security and well-being, I'd bet on myself every time. This program is simply one way of helping to put the odds more in my favor.

Follow the link to the study here: ttp://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1411131