This Controversial Program Teaches Women to Spot 'Pre-Rape' Warning Signs
Professor Charlene Senn developed a research-backed method to help women defend themselves from attackers, but some detractors say the program puts the burden for sexual assault prevention on victims.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Charlene Senn, a professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, has been researching violence against women for decades. By the early 2000s, her work led her to realize a troubling fact: We still don't know how to lower the rates of rape and sexual assault on college campuses.
In light of this realization, Senn developed an intervention that would enable women to defend themselves from attackers. "I wanted to do something that would make things better for women now, as they are tonight or on Saturday night, facing men that are attempting to sexually coerce or assault them," Senn tells Broadly over the phone.
While it is often common to hear that the solution to the campus rape crisis is "teach men not to rape," Senn says it's not that easy—in the first place, how does one even do that? Right now, most high schools and colleges have in place anti-sexual assault programs that focus on raising awareness about the ubiquity of sexual violence, reiterating its harm, and challenging rape myths. In a 2014 review of these types of programs, the CDC found that this simply doesn't work. In fact, there have been no awareness-raising programs that "have demonstrated lasting effects on risk factors or behavior," the CDC writes.
"[Expanding knowledge of the issue is] a really important thing, but it was clear that the rates of sexual violence were not altering at all and hadn't in 30 years," Senn says. "These programs increase people's knowledge of the problem, but that's not how we stop perpetrators from actually offending."
Some social norms programs that target men and promote "non-violent forms of masculinity" have shown promise, according to the CDC survey, but more research is needed. To demonstrate the importance of research-backed policies, Senn brings up empathy-induction programs that were developed in the late 90s, which were focused on deterring male offenders. They operated on the theory that rapists lacked empathy for their victims, and designed interventions to increase empathy, like having men listen to a rape survivor's story.
"This really was believed to be a promising direction, but when these programs were evaluated they had backlash effects," Senn says. "There are several studies that show that the programs that did this actually increased men's coercion after they had been in the program."
In addition, although bystander programs have also been shown to potentially reduce sexual assault, in many instances of rape, no bystanders are present.
Faced with this disheartening evidence, Senn wanted to do something that would give women the tools and confidence to navigate coercive situations until there was a viable way to teach men not to rape. In 2001, she came across the work of Patricia Rozee and Mary Koss, who had outlined a research-based approach to an anti-sexual assault program that helps women identify "pre-rape" behaviors in men and acquire practical resistance skills. In 2003, she put their program into action.
"In our research, many survivors say that they knew something was going wrong, but they didn't know if they were overreacting," Senn says. "A lot of research has shown that it is very difficult to actually let yourself fully know that a person is trying to hurt you in before a sexual assault has already happened."
The first unit of the program, Assess, and the second, Acknowledge, both aim to help women reduce this delay in acknowledging coercive behavior, especially when it comes to people they may know. (The program is specifically tailored to cases of coercion by acquaintances because over 70 percent of rape survivors know their attackers.)
The program's third unit—Act—teaches women practical self-defense they would feel comfortable using on people they know, as opposed to more militaristic self-defense approaches aimed at strangers. (Most self-defense tactics that women learn, Senn argues, are "things that women would never use against men they like or love or know or are going to see tomorrow.")
"A lot of research has shown that it is very difficult to actually let yourself fully know that a person is trying to hurt you in before a sexual assault has already happened."
In 2015, she published a study on the three-stage sexual assault resistance education program's effectiveness. Around 900 female students participated, 451 female of whom were asked to take part in the 12-hour rape-prevention course (The control group had access to standard anti-sexual assault brochures that were available on the campuses of the three Canadian universities where the study took place.)
A year later, according to her findings, five percent of the women who had undergone the sexual assault resistance training reported being raped, whereas the control group's rate was 10 percent. In other words, it had lowered the risk of rape for participants by half.
Senn says a crucial part of the program's success is that it teaches women to trust their instincts. "Women are socialized to want to trust, to want to not hurt people's feelings or their bodies. These traits aren't universal, but they are very common," Senn says. "And this socialization is an obstacle to resistance."
She gives this scenario as an example: A young woman answers the door one night to find her roommate's boyfriend, and she tells him that her roommate isn't at home, but he insists on coming in anyway. That feels really off to her, but she isn't sure. He then proceeds to come in to her apartment and to act in ways that make her feel increasingly uncomfortable; still, she starts thinking about how upset her roommate is going to be if she makes a scene, and she begins to reason with the boyfriend instead of turning him away.
"Now, all of those reactions are completely normal reactions to a situation that should be safe—your own apartment—and that are coming from a place you never expected, a person you knew and perhaps trusted," Senn explains. "But those very normal reactions delay your acknowledgement to the danger and also delay your ability to act."
Senn doesn't simply want to teach women to be firm about their boundaries, though; she also hopes they establish these boundaries on their own terms. One of the exercises in her program is called "With Whom Would You Do It," in which women are encouraged to think what sexual activities they wouldn't want to try, which ones they would, and how well they would need to know someone before they engage in whatever.
Senn says that most of the young women who have gone through the program have expressed that they had never thought of what they actually wanted sexually. These young women tell her that they hadn't thought to consider their comfort and discomfort with certain sexual activities outside the heat of the moment, when a partner suggests the acts to them. "I'm happy that the program gives that space for women to really reflect on their own desires," she says.
Even though the method is supported by evidence, Senn's approach has caused controversy. Some feminist detractors argued that this sort of approach merely redirects offending, rather than reducing it. "Rapes are perpetrated by a tiny percentage of men who know what they're doing and who rape again and again—they're just going to find another target," Jaclyn Friedman, a prominent sex educator and activist, told The Guardian. "So just because these girls [who took the training] are less likely to be picked, it doesn't mean there's less rape on campus ... This isn't rape prevention, it's rape protection."
The program has also been criticized for putting the burden for sexual assault prevention on victims. Conventional wisdom in many feminist circles holds that putting the onus on women to fight off their attackers is a regressive, insidious extension of a victim-blaming culture that tells women to dress and act a certain way to avoid sexual assault. But Senn differentiates the program from materials that, for example, tell women to watch their alcohol intake. "I think some of the criticism is an overgeneralization of our concern about all the terrible programming that's being directed to women," she said. "People think that because this is directed to women it must therefore be in the same classification."
"This program makes crystal clear that nothing you do or don't do is going to stop a man from having been a person who was willing to engage in these behaviors."
She underscores that this isn't about placing the blame or responsibility on rape survivors to prevent rape before it happens, nor is it meant to be the answer to rape culture. It's just one tool—among others like bystander prevention education, policies that encourage schools to take sexual assault reports seriously, and programs that work to shift people's attitudes toward women.
"This program makes crystal clear that nothing you do or don't do is going to stop a man from having been a person who was willing to engage in these behaviors," Senn says. "These are simply skills that could help to reduce the severity of the violence to help you get out quicker."
The seminar is shaped with input from the women who attend, and it is also constructed with rape survivors in mind. "Women who have experienced previous victimization are actually at higher risk for later victimization, so it's really important that programs like this are a good space for survivors as well," Senn says.
I ask Senn what kind of feedback the program has received from its participants. "One survivor," she responds, "told me the program had given her her freedom back."