Challenging Dogma - Spring 2009

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rape Prevention Interventions: A Critique from a Social and Behavioral Sciences Perspective – Kelley Adams

Given the array of issues the field of public health addresses, there are a variety of interventions and prevention efforts currently in place. One issue of particular importance due to its dire consequences and adverse effects on health is rape and sexual assault. Current interventions in place to address the issue of rape include direct services for victims, management programs for convicted sex offenders, and education-based preventative programs. Because there is no consensus in the literature on what causes rape, the majority of programs in this area rely on secondary prevention efforts, and even those programs labeled preventative incorporate aspects of secondary prevention. Education-based rape prevention programs are typically directed at community groups, often either at groups of men in college settings who are at risk of perpetration (e.g. fraternity members and student athletes) (1-3) or at women who are at risk of victimization, simply by falling into certain demographic categories.(4,5 )The programs directed at women typically include or focus on teaching self-defense techniques. In this paper, I will analyze and critique education-based rape prevention programs aimed at women from a social and behavior sciences perspective, paying special attention to aspects of self-defense incorporated within these programs.

Intervening at the Individual Level

As previously mentioned, education-based rape prevention programs are often directed at the community at large, certain groups at risk of perpetration, and women. Programs directed at the latter group often incorporate aspects of self-defense into the curriculum, or otherwise are entirely focused on self-defense, and are marketed as self-defense programs. A program fitting this description was offered by the Boston University Police Department earlier this year, called the Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) program, and a mass email was sent to the Boston University community containing information about its availability to community members.(6 )This program is specifically aimed at women in the Boston University community, and its stated goal is to offer an accessible, educational, awareness-raising program that teaches self-defense techniques and tools for women to use in threatening situations.(6)While aiming to empower women to take responsibility for one’s own safety and how to take control of situations are admirable goals consistent with mainstream feminist ideologies,(5) the RAD program is “specifically for women who wish to physically protect themselves against rape and other forms of violence.”(6) This mildly inflammatory description of the target population implies that women who do not choose to participate in this program do not have an interest in protecting themselves or preventing violent attacks. In addition to taking an accusatory tone, this description reveals that this intervention is intended to create change at the individual level—the program aims to teach individual women to protect themselves in individual situations of risk—rather than on a larger scale. Although it could be argued that this is in fact a group-level intervention given that the class is not taught in a one-on-one manner but to groups of women, the goal of the program is to impart self-defense techniques to women so that they can protect themselves as individuals in individual situations.(6) This fact alone sets these types of programs up for failure in terms of creating significant change on a societal level.

While there is a lack of literature addressing education-based and self-defense rape prevention programs, reviews and criticisms of individual or social cognition models can be considered in light of and applied to these programs. Public health interventions that are based on models addressing individuals are often largely ineffective, or result in less than desirable amounts of change, as these models often ignore social conditions or societal factors that contribute to the problem at hand.(7- 10) An example of a classic individual-level model is the Health Belief Model, which dictates that individuals rationally weigh benefits and barriers, while considering their own susceptibility and the severity of consequences of the problem at hand, of performing the desired health-promoting behavior.(11) This model, like others at the individual level, has been criticized for ignoring the social and cultural context of the individuals that it targets, effectively attempting to analyze individual behavior in a vacuum.(7-10) It has also been criticized for assuming that all individuals considered using the model have equal access, resources, and information to perform the desired behavior.(7)

Given that self-defense classes offered for rape prevention are targeted at the individual level, these critiques are relevant. Programs like the Boston University Police Department’s RAD program, a program that is offered throughout the United States and Canada in various settings,(12) target women who “wish to protect themselves”(6) and do not explicitly consider issues of access, as enrollment costs money and the RAD program is only offered to Boston University women.(6) Similarly, the theoretical model underlying these classes places the responsibility for preventing instances of rape on potential victims rather than perpetrators, and theoretically attempts to end the problem of rape one attempted instance at a time—an unlikely feat considering it has recently been found that 1 in 6 women has been raped at some point in her lifetime.(13) Additionally, by offering self-defense training, these classes assume that self-defense skills are the tools needed to stop rape. In other words, there is no consideration of the fact that the vast majority of rapes are committed by offenders known to the victim, that rapes can take place within relationships and situations where factors other than physical force, such as coercion, are at play. These are examples of contextual factors that individual-level models, and subsequently, programs based on individual-level theoretical models, fail to take into account.

Branding of the Programs and Institutional Associations

Self-defense rape prevention programs, like the BUPD’s RAD program, are often offered in university settings and/or by law enforcement officials. While the involvement of law enforcement officials may offer a sense of security and trust in the skills taught in these classes for some, it may hinder the participation of others. Women involved in illegal activities or those fearful or distrustful of the police may not participate in these programs even though they “wish to physically protect themselves against rape and other forms of violence.”(6) This may be viewed as a failure on the part of those offering the programs to recognize how who delivers these programs matters, as the program’s association with law enforcement or even a more neutral, but still authoritative and powerful, institution like a university may be a deterrent for some. Psychological Reactance Theory (PRT), a theory originating in psychology, dictates that some may experience an emotional reaction to being told to do something, and react in the opposite way than is desired.(14-15) There is a body of literature on this subject that looks at how to prevent psychological reactance, and the general consensus is that having someone who is as similar as possible to the target audience deliver the intended message should successfully avoid this phenomenon.(14) This idea is also present in communications theory, specifically in McGuire’s Communication/Persuasion Matrix.(14) In terms of self-defense classes, this would mean that the instructors and institutions associated with the program should be similar to the women the program is intended for, and incorporating police involvement would dictate that those averse to law enforcement may in fact opt out of participating, even though they may have an interest in their own personal safety. This would undoubtedly be an unwanted effect, particularly given that this is an individual-level intervention seeking to instill change on a larger scale by reaching as many individuals as possible.

In addition to PRT, branding theory, largely used in advertising and marketing,(14) should be considered with regard to these programs. Although most people do not typically consider the brand created by institutions that provide public services like education and law enforcement, the values tied to the brands created by the police and universities matter. While universities can be seen as relatively benign institutions that simply offer schooling and educational resources to the general public, they can also be seen as political institutions with monetary interests and inherently authoritarian, hierarchical internal structures. Likewise, the police may be seen as well-meaning protectors of public safety by some, but as inherently political disciplinarians who work to promote the interests of the state or financial interests, rely heavily on authoritarianism, and abuse their power by others. Given the association with authoritarian and hierarchical institutions like police and universities, these self-defense programs are branded in a way that mirrors the values exhibited by the brands of these institutions,(14) which may be seen as positive or negative. The possibility of these brands being perceived as negative, or even simply as starkly different from the values that an individual holds, may effectively prevent people from participating in these programs not because they are averse to learning self-defense skills or preventing personal attacks, but because of how the program has been branded.

Assumptions Regarding Behavior

The underlying individual-level logic models that most rape prevention self-defense classes are built on assume that behavior is rational, planned, and that people have control over their behaviors. These classes aim to teach women self-defense skills so that, when presented with a threatening situation or in the case of an attack, the woman being victimized will be able to react and physically thwart her attacker’s attempts. The thinking is that if these women are trained in self-defense, they will be able to react in a rational way by drawing on their knowledge of self-defense and employing these techniques. It is also assumed that if this particular reaction is planned, that the individual will in fact react this way when faced with a situation requiring this response. Two core tenets of the social and behavioral sciences perspective assert that people behave irrationally, and that intention to perform a behavior does not necessarily lead to performance of that behavior.(7,16-17) These points are typically applied to relatively benign health behaviors like deciding to get a mammogram, in which case it might be theorized that someone would avoid getting a mammogram even though they are at risk for breast cancer because of fear of breast cancer or perhaps social norms dictate that getting a mammogram is not a socially acceptable behavior, and even though someone might intend to get a mammogram there are issues of access and resources that may prevent that person from getting one.(7) In contrast to these types of scenarios, rape and sexual assault are highly emotionally charged topics, and instances of attack or threats are wrought with emotion. Given this, it is even less likely that the person being victimized would be able to rationally recall self-defense techniques, think about how to adapt them to that particular situation, and successfully employ them. Therefore even though the victim may have intended to use these techniques and respond in a particular way, it may not be possible in such an emotionally intense situation. This is not to say that women with self-defense training are never able to use these techniques, but that it is easy to see how these techniques might fail in such situations and render these rape prevention programs less than useful.

Additionally, these programs assume that women will respond rationally and as they intend to in threatening situations because the hypothetical rape scenario these programs are created to prevent is oversimplified. If the typical instance of rape is the result of a sudden stranger attack, possibly with the involvement of a weapon, it would make sense to teach women self-defense techniques to ward off these attackers. However, in reality, between 75% and 95% of rape/sexual assault victims know their attackers,(18-20) revealing that rape often happens within more complex social relationships than the victim-stranger dyad that is typically thought of. Taking this into consideration, it becomes clear that women who go through these self-defense programs may find these techniques less than useful, as they may be more reluctant to hurt their attacker, may not perceive the situation as dangerous until physical resistance is no longer an option, or perceive resistance as futile or possibly detrimental to the relationship, if there is a social relationship in place. Sexual coercion, rather than forced rape is also omitted from this paradigm. Rape prevention self-defense programs assume that rape attempts can be prevented with physical self-defense techniques, assume that victims will be able and willing to use these techniques when faced with threatening situations, and assume that victims will be able to identifying situations as threatening in time to utilize these techniques.

In summary, self-defense programs as a form of rape prevention contain many flaws. They attempt to create societal change by working on an individual level, do not consider their possibly prohibitive association with law enforcement and institutions, and assume that behavior is rational, planned, and that intentions to perform a behavior lead to performance of that behavior. In addition, they place the responsibility of preventing rape on potential victims rather than potential perpetrators, do not address the fact that the vast majority of rapes are committed by attackers known to the victim, and fail to consider the role that coercion and social relationships play in instances of rape. Although it may beyond the scope of these programs, in attempting to prevent rape, these programs do not acknowledge that a sizable proportion of sexual abuse takes place when victims are in childhood, that males are victims of rape and sexual assault also, essentially contribute to the gendered assumptions about victims and perpetrators (i.e. that women are victims and men are perpetrators), and ignore the complexities around the dichotomous victim-perpetrator dyad (i.e. that victims can be perpetrators and vice versa). From a social and behavioral sciences perspective, these programs seem to be largely ineffective in contributing to the prevention and eradication of rape.

Moving Beyond Individual Responsibility: A Cultural Intervention for Rape Prevention

Taking into consideration the problematic aspects of self-defense classes as a form of rape prevention, my recommendation is to implement an intervention that goes beyond changing individual behavior or relying on individuals to prevent their own victimization, and addresses not only communities, but society as a whole. Although the forefront of rape prevention efforts have been moving towards utilizing a group-oriented bystander approach, where the entire community takes on the responsibility of preventing rape and everyone is trained in how to intervene in problematic situations,(21) this approach can still be viewed as addressing individuals, albeit in a collective manner, and attempting to change behavior one individual intervention attempt at a time. I propose to intervene long before reaching individual risky situations or relying on others to identify these situations and act.

There are currently an array of education-based programs conducted by rape crisis centers and offices of sexual assault prevention at various college campuses,(22-25) but these programs are typically disseminated to the public through single session groups, often to groups considered at risk for perpetration, like fraternity houses. I am not advocating for more of these types of programs, as there are many in existence despite an absence of empirically demonstrated efficacy, but rather for incorporating gender, sexuality, and sexual violence into general curriculums in elementary, middle, and high schools, so that they are not covered once, but are treated as themes throughout the year-long curriculum. This would not necessarily mean teaching sex education earlier, as gender issues and the concept of gender as a social construction can be incorporated into younger children’s education without explicit teachings about sex. The purpose of this would be to create an environment where gender and healthy visions of sexuality are often talked about rather than made taboo. Granted, school is only one of many sources of information available to children, and children should not be relied upon to be advocates of change, especially given their relatively powerless position in society. To compensate for this, a national media campaign would have to be launched concurrently espousing the same concepts and values to address adults and children not in school. This would potentially prevent concepts learned in school from being discarded as hypothetical and abstract, and allowing for application to daily life.

Research has shown hypermasculinity, harboring attitudes of hostility towards women, and power motivations to be risk factors for perpetration,(26) and this type of intervention is aimed at preventing the development of these attitudes and behaviors in childhood. Educational interventions with community involvement to prevent dating violence among teens have seen some success in reducing violence.(27) The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) conducts a training program with early childhood educators, that teaches identification of perpetration-like behaviors and solutions for dealing with them.(22) The intervention proposed here is building on these intervention models, but expanding it so that all school children are targeted, perpetration-like behaviors are not the only warning signs being looked for, and culture is examined as a risk factor or facilitator of sexual violence.

Beyond the Individual

Like many public health interventions, self-defense classes for rape prevention target individuals and aim to change individual behavior. The assumption is that if women can learn self-defense techniques, they will effectively thwart attackers’ efforts and prevent sexual assault, one averted incident at a time. This approach places the responsibility of prevention on potential victims, and is potentially cost-ineffective, given the amount of effort and resources spent to change individual behaviors. In contrast, the intervention proposed here addresses people on a larger group level, both in terms of the school-based intervention which addresses students and teachers, and in terms of the national media campaign. Notably, this removes any stereotype or label that can be inferred from the targeted group (e.g. potential victims or women who wish to protect themselves partake in self-defense classes). This model also attempts to change the beliefs and norms of a large societal group, and essentially works to change the societal consensus on topics like gender and sexuality, which is far removed from attempting to change how an individual conceptualizes gender, for example.

Models and theories of group change are numerous in social and behavior sciences, and are the preferred method for instituting change.(16) In contrast to traditional individual-level theories, these alternative theories recognize that people change in groups rather than as individuals, and that group dynamics are important in influencing how this change happens.(16) Specifically, advertising theory posits that if you make a promise to a group of people that provides them with benefits, reinforces the group’s core values, and is visibly supported, change can be instituted on a broad level using this singular intervention approach.(16,28) Similarly, social norms theory dictates that people change their behavior in groups, and individuals change as their social network changes, thereby reinforcing the importance of targeting groups rather than individuals.(16,29) In terms of the intervention presented here, the national media campaign would likely borrow concepts from advertising theory to communicate that certain attitudes around sexuality and violence are desired or undesired, respectively. This would work by promising people social currency through popularity upon adoption of these desired attitudes, while the desired attitudes would rely on core values like community and empathy, supported by imagery of people performing healthy visions of sexuality, for example. The educational component incorporates concepts from social norms theory as it attempts to change children’s social norms through educating them about desirable forms of sexuality and gender relations that would be disseminated through their social networks.

Branding and Associations

Self-defense programs are often operated by police departments or other authoritative and powerful institutions, which may be a participation deterrent for some. The intervention being presented here would address this by marketing itself as an initiative by multiple grassroots organizations that deal with sexual violence, domestic violence, and gender issues. By removing associations with institutions of authority, this intervention would be branded as sincere, working in the interest of the community, and instead of being conducted by authority figures, would be run by fellow community members. The incorporation of fellow community members in positions to disseminate this intervention is important, as Psychological Reactance Theory dictates that people may react poorly to being told what to do, and as communication theory stresses, especially if the person delivering the message is dissimilar from them.(14-15) For this intervention, the educational materials would be branded as having come from a collective of organizations, as would the media campaign materials. Similarly, special attention would be paid to who appears in the media advertisements, ensuring that people and values espoused in the ads reflect the groups targeted.

One concern may be that the educational component of this intervention will be less effective as it works through disseminating information in school, an institutional setting. However, this intervention would be implemented in school curricula as early as in elementary school, when teachers are not necessarily seen as authoritative adversaries, as they may be when students reach adolescence. The implementation of this program from a young age should instill the desired values and attitudes that are then carried with them into adolescence, so even though at initial implementation the program may not be as effective in adolescent groups as it is in younger groups, the program would still be instituted in these groups to provide consistency for those children who begin it at younger ages. Taking into account PRT and communications theory,(14-15) students themselves may be recruited to assist in teaching the educational component of this program at older ages to make its contents more salient.

Relying on Cultural Consciousness, Rather than Individual Behaviors

Self-defense classes rely on individuals to learn self-defense behaviors, accurately recall them in so-called risky situations (which they are assumed to be able to accurately identify), and effectively utilize them. This multitude of assumptions sets self-defense programs as a form of rape prevention up for failure. The intervention presented here, however, relies on the body of cultural knowledge around gender, sexuality, and sexual violence, rather than on individual actions, to prevent rape. It builds on the bystander approach’s emphasis on community responsibility for sexual assault prevention by attempting to achieve community responsibility for the collective cultural consciousness, or the shared knowledge about gender, sexuality, and sexual assault. The educational and media components of the program will theoretically change social norms by destigmatizing survivors of sexual violence, linking certain cultural attitudes to the facilitation of sexual assault and deeming those attitudes unacceptable, and really forcing people to critically think about gender, sexuality, and sexual violence, and how culture may facilitate sexual assault. These newly altered social norms should provide the impetus for people to take responsibility for the status of rape in that community, and therefore, would act as a form of primary prevention long before any individual instances of attempted sexual assault need to be thwarted.

Because this program aims to intervene long before individual risky scenarios are reached, it does not need to rely on the series of assumptions about the individual’s ability to remember information, analyze its applicability to the situation, and effectively utilize it, as in the case of self-defense programs. This program will not face the same branding issues as self-defense programs given its association with multiple smaller organizations rather than large institutions, it will avoid placing responsibility for prevention on potential victims, and it does not engage in or allow for victim-blaming. By instituting prevention on a level far removed from individual behaviors in certain situations, this approach inherently recognizes that most victims know their attackers, and acknowledges the role that coercion plays in sexual violence.


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