No means no: how resistance training for women can stop (some) rape

Australian universities don’t currently do enough to prevent sexual violence. Ashley Harrigan/Flickr, CC BY

A Canadian study has found that 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 that their program reduced women’s risk of rape by half: from one to ten for women who did not receive the program, to one in 20 for those who did.

It’s an impressive result. But what does it mean for preventing rape in Australia? Should we be funding 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.

We need to stop men who rape – not place the responsibility on victims. Tamara Craiu/Flickr, CC BY-ND

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.

The key to so-called “resistance” programs then, may actually be in undoing some of the learnt gendered attitudes, feelings, and behaviours that undermine women’s agency and autonomy. If that’s the case, then delivering these programs to university women may in fact be too late to tackle the underlying issue.

Sexual violence prevention programs include components that support women’s agency and autonomy in sexual negotiations. Parker Knight/Flickr, CC BY

What we really need are programs that encourage girls, from a young age, to maintain their sense of strength and independence.

It is widely acknowledged that puberty is a key time in girls’ development where societal messages of what it means to be #likeagirl really sink in.

Messages routinely tell girls and women that they are valued foremost for their appearance and sexuality – rather than for their intellectual, sporting, or entrepreneurial contributions.

Such cultural programming of how “good” and “proper” girls and women should behave runs so deep that it affects how we use our bodies, how women and men occupy public space, and how we negotiate sexual encounters.

We can and need to do better

There’s no doubt that Australian universities do not do enough to prevent sexual violence. In Australia, we lack a government policy and funding framework to support sexual violence prevention in our universities, despite the rates of sexual violence being particularly high for young women aged 18 to 24 – and most often at the hands of their male peers.

We do not even collate statistics on the rates of sexual assault in our universities. (Though a survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) suggests the rates may be as high as 17% of female students experiencing rape, and a further 31% experiencing sex without giving consent.)

We should follow Canada and the United States, and invest in sexual violence prevention programming in our universities. Such programs might include components that support women’s agency and autonomy in sexual negotiations.

But let’s be clear. Prevention programs that only focus on victims might lower the odds for some individual women – but they will not stop rape from happening.

Rape prevention must also focus on potential offenders, encouraging bystanders to intervene, and challenging the culture that condones, minimises and tolerates rape. Only by addressing sexual violence in all its elements, can we ultimately create a society where women do not live under the shadow of rape.

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