Smart study finds “resistance program” helps women avoid rape — but at what cost?

At every turn, it seems, we pour ever more time and energy into figuring out new ways to teach women old lessons about how to not get raped.

And yesterday, that tactic yielded an exciting result. Canadian researchers found that a new “rape resistance” program lowered first-year female college students’ likelihood of being sexually assaulted. The one-year risk of rape for women who completed the resistance program was 5%, compared to 10% for women in the control group. That’s an impressive finding, and I’m curious what we do with it.

The program was divided into four parts:

Unit 1 (Assess) focused on improving women’s assessment of the risk of sexual assault by male acquaintances and developing problem-solving strategies to reduce perpetrator advantages. Unit 2 (Acknowledge) assisted women to more quickly acknowledge the danger in situations that have turned coercive, explore ways to overcome emotional barriers to resisting the unwanted sexual behaviors of men who were known to them, and practice resisting verbal coercion. Unit 3 (Act) offered instruction about and practice of effective options for resistance; this unit included 2 hours of self-defense training based on Wen-Do.30 The unit focused on common sexual assault situations involving acquaintances and defense against attackers who were larger than the woman. Unit 4 (Sexuality and Relationships) aimed to integrate content from the previous units into participants’ sexual lives by providing sexual information, including the slang and scientific terms for a wide range of possible sexual activities beyond intercourse and health and safer-sex practices, and a context to explore their sexual attitudes, values, and desires and to develop strategies for sexual communication.

As the researchers point out, theirs is the first program of its kind to show a significant reduction in victimization. They attribute that success, in contrast to earlier programs’ efforts, to “more hours of programming, a greater number of interactive and practice exercises, less focus on ‘assertive communication’ and more on escalation of resistance in response to a perpetrator’s perseverance, and the addition of positive sexuality content.”

There’s a lot here that I’m so down for. Sex positive content that focuses on desire and communication about sexual boundaries. Recognition that offenders are often coercive and persistent — wearing down their victims — rather than openly physically violent. Acknowledgement that perpetrators are more likely to be acquaintances and partners than strangers. I wish I’d known all that before I was raped. I mean, let’s be real: in an ideal world, everyone would receive comprehensive sex ed (including some of this program’s content) long before college.

I’m interested in what comes next, in what we make of the study’s findings and what we do with them. Does the study’s resistance course become mandatory programming for women on college campuses? What does that mean for women? For other marginalized folk? For perpetrators? For our communities more broadly?

And, thinking through that, I can’t help feeling a little anxious. Besides the fact that the resistance program itself is fairly hetero- and cis-normative (it only briefly contemplates the reality that people other than women are raped, and that people other than men rape), it’s a deeply individualized fix to a structural, societal problem. The study notes that the victimization rate of the particular women who completed the resistance program decreases, but neglects to study whether the total violence on campus drops with it. Put differently, the resistance class may help an individual avoid violence but doesn’t necessarily reduce it overall. As a friend of mine once said, “If you’re pushing a woman to change her behavior to ‘prevent’ rape, rather than telling a perpetrator to change his, you’re really saying ‘make sure he rapes the other girl.'” There will always be another girl at the bar.

That probably doesn’t matter to you if it’s your child you want to attend a resistance class, but shouldn’t it matter to us as a community?

To their credit, the researchers get that. Charlene Y. Senn, the lead author on the study, told The New York Times, “[The resistance class] gives women the knowledge and skills they need right now, but the long-term solution is to reduce their need to defend themselves.”

I also worry how the study’s results might shape rape survivors’ experiences in the world. Will taking a “rape resistance” course become yet another item on the Perfect Victim Checklist (despite the researchers’ clear insistence that the course itself veer away from the victim-blaming)? Add to the slew of victim-blaming questions with which survivors are already importuned about why they didn’t prevent their assault: “Why didn’t you take rape resistance training?” or, worse, “You took a resistance class. Why didn’t you use the strategies you learned and fight back?”

“You must have wanted it.”

The study itself admits that the women who completed the resistance program may have internalized some victim-blaming beliefs as a result, thereby impacting the study’s findings: “Differential reporting between the groups is possible. Women in the resistance group might have underreported sexual assaults (perhaps believing that they should have been able to resist them).”

But what worries me most is another of the study’s findings: that the incidence of attempted rape also decreased, right alongside the completed rape rate. Given the resistance program’s tactics, we might have expected attempted rape to increase, as completed assaults dropped: more women, after all, were learning to protect themselves and stop violence. The researchers offer one possible explanation: “Because women cannot control men’s perpetration behavior, the reductions in the risks of attempted rape and coercion and unwanted sexual contact suggest that the resistance program may have increased women’s ability to detect and interrupt men’s behavior at an early stage.”

Another explanation seems plausible, though: that the women simply learned to stay away from particular activities and settings in order to avoid violence. If that’s the case — and of course, I don’t know if it is — it’s troubling.

Rape is a tool of societal control, used to limit women’s (and queer and trans people’s) movement in the world, to diminish our presence and sense of selfhood, to keep us in our place. Like rape itself, the persistent admonitions (“don’t drink that,” “don’t walk there,” “don’t talk to him”) keep us quiet and submissive. And, as I (and many others) have said before, that endless chorus of “don’t”s “neither reduces violence nor comes without cost: It keeps us out of public space, afraid to take risks. It does violence’s work for it.”

I’m never going to tell someone not to take a “rape resistance” class if she (or he or they) want to. We all deserve to feel safe and comfortable and, if that’s going to make a person move through the world more confidently, she should do it.

But, speaking just for myself, all of the “avoid this” and “stay away from that”s just make me feel smaller. I don’t want to live in a world where marginalized people have to shrink their lives in order to survive. I don’t want to live in a world that even considers that an option on the table.

Because this shrinking, dwindling, diminishing thing that we do — it isn’t living.

Header image credit: The Cut

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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