Every year, college campuses across the country conduct sexual assault prevention workshops, courses, and orientation sessions. Yet every year, little research is done on whether these interventions result in fewer sexual assaults. A new article published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests that sexual assault prevention programs might actually be making the problem worse.
Researchers Neil Malamuth and Mark Huppin, from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Daniel Linz of the University of California, Santa Barbara, found growing evidence of a "boomerang effect," where high-risk men behave more aggressively, not less, after interventions designed to change their behavior.
These findings provide a useful critique of the sexual assault prevention models that have proliferated since 2013, when the Violence Against Women Act required public universities that federal funds to implement sexual assault prevention courses for their students.
Because the law doesn't require universities to assess whether their programming actually works, many institutions may be using methods which don't help their students, the researchers claim. They identified 158 relevant studies and winnowed the list down to 28 qualifying, quantitative studies that also contained behavioral analysis and follow-ups.
For instance, many schools have employed a bystander model for sexual assault education, which "targets all community members as potential bystanders and seeks to engage them in proactive behaviors that establish intolerance of violence as the norm." This is all well and good, but Malamuth et al. say there's "no evidence" that the method works at "changing high risk males' attitudes, emotions, empathy levels, or behaviors." In other words, many schools are using prevention programs that are unlikely to affect the demographic of students most likely to commit sexual assault. (The study focuses on high-risk males because men are statistically far more likely to rape than women are.)
These high-risk males might, in fact, be made more likely to engage in sexual violence as a result of these interventions. One of the papers reviewed, from 2015, suggests that "according to reactance theory, when people perceive that their freedoms are threatened they may resist such influence and assert autonomy by moving in the opposite direction to the perceived influence."
This is hardly a controversial observation. When college orientation programs preach the ills of excessive drinking, do students at risk for that behavior mostly fall in line? Or, do they decorate their beers with koozies emblazoned with the school's anti-drinking policy (a popular practice at my alma mater) and roll joints using pages of the school's honor code?
Studies from 2014 on anti-smoking and drinking campaigns corroborate this: when high-risk people's choices are threatened, the risky behavior is reinforced, not lessened. A 2015 study on graphic cigarette packaging found that cancerous, rotted lung images and the like didn't actually deter smokers, but gave them the sense that their freedom was being threatened.
Another 2015 study found that "men low in sexism showed less aggressive tendencies following exposure to messages emphasizing norms of gender equality…Conversely, men high in hostile sexist attitudes showed a boomerang effect of increased sexually aggressive tendencies." A 2009 study examined the results that rape prevention efforts––namely a 50-minute video––had on low- and high-risk college-aged men. Looking at the whole sample of men after weeks, researchers noted "an increase in victim empathy," but this can mostly be attributed to the low-risk group. High-risk men "were more likely at follow-up to report higher sexually coercive behaviors" than before.
Based on these findings, Malamuth et al. claim that the boomerang effect is "very possible with current sexual violence interventions on university campuses."
It's clear that colleges need to actually measure whether these approaches inadvertently worsen the behavior of men most likely to act violently. Simply forcing students to sit through hours of feel-good programming isn't good enough. If sexual assault trends on campus truly are as dire as many people claim, we should be tracking the efficacy of interventions. Otherwise, colleges are just preaching to the choir of people who rightly see sexual violence as undeniably, obviously bad.