Psychology professors Ian Newby-Clark and Paula Barata worked with principal investigator Charlene Senn from the University of Windsor on the research, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study involved nearly 900 female first-year students from U of G, Windsor and the University of Calgary.
The team found resistance training reduced the risk of rape by 46 per cent and reduced attempted rapes by 63 per cent. This is the first program in North America to show positive outcomes lasting beyond a few months.
“It’s quite dramatic,” said Newby-Clark, a specialist in human behaviour and change who worked on the study’s protocol and statistical analysis.
Female volunteers were randomly assigned to either a sexual assault resistance program or a control group whose members received educational brochures and other printed materials typically available at Canadian universities.
The resistance program was developed by Senn, a psychology and women’s studies professor, over a 10-year period with support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Ontario Women’s Health Council.
Based on empirical evidence and best practices, the program included information, skills and practice in risk assessment, verbal and physical self-defence, and self-evaluation including health sexuality.
The program focused on acquaintance rape, as nearly 80 per cent of rape victims are assaulted by someone they know, Barata said.
“Together, these elements prepare women emotionally, mentally and physically to resist sexual assault attempts,” she said.
The students completed the training during their first year of university, and follow-up surveys were conducted a year later.
Barata, who studies psychosocial determinants of women’s health and well-being, helped train staff and run the pilot program at U of G. It began in 2011 and included three four consecutive groups of first-year students.
“Statistically, we found that enrolling 22 women in the program would prevent one rape from occurring,” she said.
Besides fewer sexual assaults and attempted assaults, rates of attempted coercion and non-consensual sexual contact were also lower in the following year for women in the resistance program than in the control group, the study found.
University students were selected because research shows about one in four women will experience rape or attempted rape while attending university, primarily by male acquaintances.
Barata says such statistics include only rape and attempted rape. Using broader legal definitions of sexual assault, the rates are even higher. “The literature also suggests that the first and second years of university are when students are most at risk,” she said.
All three researchers emphasized that only perpetrators can stop sexual assault.
Newby-Clark said there needs to be new and improved programs aimed at changing men’s behaviour, as most existing efforts have had limited success.
In the meantime, Senn said resistance training can help young women resist unwanted sexual activity.
“What this shows us is that while we wait for effective programs for men or for cultural shifts in attitudes to happen, there is something practical we can do to give young women the tools they need to better protect themselves from sexual assault,” she said.
Next steps include an implementation study involving participating universities. “Now that we have evidence that resistance training can reduce sexual assaults, we hope to interest additional universities in accessing the program,” Newby-Clark said.
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