No, That Study Didn't Simply Say Teaching Young Women Self-Defense Will Stop Rape

A paper about preventing rape in the New England Journal of Medicine made headlines, but we need to be careful not to draw simplistic conclusions.

by Hilary Beaumont
15 June 2015, 10:00pm

No, kickboxing is not the answer to rape culture. Photo via Flickr user David Shankbone.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

If you skimmed the headlines of some major Canadian news outlets this week, you'd be forgiven for thinking women had learned to prevent rape simply by learning self defense.

"Teaching women self-defence still the best way to reduce sexual assaults: study," reads a Globe and Mail headline.

"Women trained to resist sexual assault far less likely to be raped: study" said CTV's headline on a story about the research.

Sorry, no, kickboxing hasn't solved sexual assault.

Although to be fair, the Globe and CTV stories are more carefully written than their headlines.

The new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine garnered a lot of attention this week after researchers announced they found a promising way to cut women's risk of completed rape almost in half—with a relative risk reduction of 46.3 percent—when compared to women who were given brochures on sexual assault.

The 900 women who participated in the study were split into two groups: a group that took the resistance training, and a control group that was handed brochures similar to those in campus clinics and counseling centers. A year after the interventions, the risk of completed rape was a significantly lower: 5.2 percent for the resistance training group, compared to 9.8 percent for those who received brochures.

Twenty-two women would need to take the program to prevent one additional rape within a year, Dr. Charlene Senn and her coauthors concluded.

That's fucking huge.

But anti-rape advocates are concerned some headlines have misconstrued the nuanced research, and can be interpreted as putting the onus on women to protect themselves from rape—an idea front-line advocacy groups have been working against for years.

Before she hopped on a plane Thursday, consent educator and self-described "award-winning feminist buzzkill"Julie Lalonde warned against a lazy reading of the headlines.

"The conclusion is not more self-defense classes for women, in the traditional sense of the word," she told VICE over the phone Thursday after disembarking said plane. "The conclusion is not: 'See, women can and must prevent rape.' That is not the conclusion of her work. that is a lazy reading of what is actually very nuanced research which challenges a lot of the narratives that are in place."

"I'm so worried that the media is feeding into this narrative of once again, if a woman is sexually assaulted and she hasn't taken a self-defense class, then it was her fault because she could have prevented her rape and didn't," she continued.

What you may not have read is that, according to Senn and her coauthors, other workshops designed to help women resist rape have had inconsistent effects. However, this specific workshop—which involved a component of self-defense training, but was not solely a self-defense class—was found to reduce completed rape, attempted rape, attempted coercion, and nonconsensual sexual contact.

Though it reduced all other forms of rape, the workshop did not significantly decrease coercion, the researchers found.

"Coercion was considered to have occurred when perpetrators used pressure or manipulation (e.g., "threatening to end the relationship" or "continually verbally pressuring me") to induce compliance in nonconsensual penetrative sexual acts," the study states.

The study involved 893 women—442 of whom were assigned to a control group given sexual assault brochures, and 451 of whom attended the resistance training groups.

The resistance training involved a four-step program.

The first unit taught the women to assess and problem solve risk of sexual assault by male acquaintances.

The second stage helped increase their speed in recognizing the danger in coercive situations and overcome emotional barriers in resisting advances by men they knew. In this stage they practiced resisting verbal coercion.

The third stage was self-defense training that focused on sexual assault by acquaintances, and attackers who were larger than the women.

The fourth stage, "sexuality and relationships," gave the women "a context to explore their sexual attitudes, values, and desires," and helped them develop strategies for sexual communication.

So no, it wasn't only self-defense training.

And the study's authors acknowledge more research is needed "to identify the elements that are critical for efficacy" so they can make a shorter version of the workshop that can be used widely.

My takeaway is that this workshop can empower women to assert their boundaries and defend themselves if needed, but it's not only about self-defense. It's also about teaching women to recognize and respond to common dangerous situations, which more often involve people they know—not strangers in the bushes.

Known as the "red zone," women in university are at heightened risk for sexual assault in the fall semester of their first year. A new poll by the Washington Postfound 20 percent of women and 5 percent of men who attended college in the past four years report being sexually assaulted.

Historically, society has placed the onus on women to prevent sexual assault: Don't walk home alone at night, don't wear short skirts and all that. In recent years, public pressure from rape survivors and their allies has forced universities, police, and politicians to look at the issue differently.

Slowly the onus has begun to shift away from women to prevent attackers from raping them and instead onto attackers to not rape women.

Consent and bystander intervention programs are also on the rise on college campuses.

It's in this context that Senn and her co-authors researched the efficacy of a resistance program to prevent sexual assault.

The workshop they developed is one more tool in the rape-prevention toolbox.

Lalonde told VICE she hopes universities will recognize Senn's nuanced approach and adapt her workshop for their campuses.

"Charlene Senn has developed this model—pick it up," she said. "This is my call to other campuses. You don't have to reinvent the wheel—she created this program, you know, fund having the equivalent on your campus."

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