Sunday, April 20, 2014

How to protect yourself from sexual assault.

At least 1 in 5 women in the United States will be sexually victimized (raped or sexually assaulted) in their lifetime and the physical, emotional, psychological, and social consequences of being sexually victimized are devastating. There have been many efforts to prevent the incidence of sexual assault, including increasing community awareness of sexual victimization, increasing bystander intervention, and increasing women’s early awareness of danger in the environment. Unfortunately, none of these have been effective in reducing the rate of sexual victimization. Instead, these programs simply change individual perceptions, awareness, and attitudes about sexual victimization in the short-term. So what can we do to prevent this?

Luckily, Dr. Jocelyn Hollander of the University of Oregon has dedicated a large part of her professional life to research on prevention of violence against women through self-defense training. Recently, Dr. Hollander published a study where she tested whether participation in a self-defense training course prevents sexual victimization.

To do this, she recruited 180 female college students who enrolled in a self-defense training course and 179 female college students who were enrolled in other courses that term, such as English or Biology. These women provided information before their courses began on whether they had ever experienced sexual victimization in the past, such as being raped, sexually assaulted, or coerced into sexual activity. Based upon these reports, the women in the self-defense class reported no differences in past exposure to rape, sexual assault, or intimate partner violence compared with the women in the comparison classes.

These women also completed surveys about their self-efficacy and confidence that they could protect themselves if they were exposed to an attacker. There were no differences between the two groups in their report of confidence or self-efficacy to protect themselves after an attack.

Over the next 10 weeks, the women in the self-defense class met for 3 hours per week to learn verbal and physical forms of self-defense. In addition, they spent 1.5 hours each week in small group discussions on the social, psychological, and emotional aspects of self-defense. One important feature of this self-defense training was that it was designed to be specifically for women, for example the physical self-defense tactics emphasized lower instead of upper body strength.

One year after the completion of the course (self-defense or comparison), these women again reported on their exposure to sexual victimization since the class ended. In addition, women also reported their self-efficacy and confidence in their skills to protect themselves if they were attacked.

They found that ZERO women in the self-defense class were sexually assaulted or raped, and that 3% of women in the comparison experienced a sexual assault or rape during the year. They also found that women in the self-defense class had significant increases in their confidence to protect themselves.

The results of the study are simple and encouraging to say the least. ZERO is a pretty definitive number. What was also pretty interesting, was that the two groups of women (self-defense vs. comparison) both experienced attempted rape, they were just able to protect themselves effectively.  This is particularly encouraging because one criticism I have heard of having women learn self-defense strategies is that they will just get physically injured and may or may not avoid the sexual assault. In the study however, Dr. Hollander clarifies that there are several studies documenting that women who try to protect themselves from sexual assaults do not sustain more physical injury than those who don’t.  

What I also found interesting about this study was the importance of dose. To date, there have been 4 studies testing the impact of self-defense training on women’s incidence of sexual victimization. All of the previous studies included 2 to 2.5 hour self-defense training, which was confidence boosting but not effective in the long run. What likely differentiated Dr. Hollander’s  study from these somewhat ineffective self-defense interventions was the 30 hour dose. So, if you’re looking for self-defense training that will really help you protect yourself, 30 hours will be an effective dose, not 3.

In sum, if you’re interested in doing something to prevent sexual victimization for yourself or important women in your life, look for self-defense classes that are about 30 hours long, promote physical self-defense that is designed for women. It’s important to keep in mind that this study was not a randomized controlled trial. In other words, we don’t know whether women who choose to take self-defense courses are less likely overall to be sexually victimized. However, we know that these two groups of young women had the same amount of sexual victimization at the outset of the study so that’s unlikely about this specific sample.  At the very least, it’s nice to know there is something we can do to effectively protect ourselves.

Just for fun, we can start by “SING”-ing.

Hollander, J. A. (2014). Does self-defense training prevent sexual violence against women?. Violence against women, 1077801214526046.

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