ATHENS, Ohio -- Studies of a three-hour sexual assault risk-reduction program developed at Ohio University suggest it may help reduce the incidence of sexual assault.
Researchers recruited 772 women for the study, which was conducted during the 1997-98 academic year at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and Binghamton University, State University of New York. Seventy-eight percent of participants were freshmen, and all were randomly assigned to either a control group or the risk reduction program.
Researchers measured history of sexual assault at the time of the study's onset and at two-month and six-month follow-ups. For the study, sexual assault was defined as "any unwanted sexual contact."
While the rates of sexual assault were relatively similar at the beginning of the study and at the two-month follow-up, researchers noted a decreasing trend at the six-month follow-up for women who took part in the risk reduction program. Twenty percent of the women in that group reported they had been sexually assaulted in the six months following the program's end, compared to 26 percent in the control group.
The strongest finding, however, was that women in the program group who were sexually assaulted during the two-month follow-up were less likely than women in the control group to be revictimized at the six-month follow-up. This suggests the program played a role in reducing risk of sexual assault, says Christine Gidycz, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University who developed the program and led this new study.
Gidycz presented her findings Aug. 17 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco.
"The strongest finding here is that the program does appear to reduce a woman's risk of being revictimized," Gidycz says. "The rate of revictimization without the program was 73 percent. The rate for women who took part in the program was 50 percent. That's a significant reduction."
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statitistics, there were 137,000 rapes and other sexual assaults in the United States in 1994, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The bureau doesn't track sexual assault on college campuses because not all colleges report these crimes in the same way and private institutions aren't required to report them at all.
"Most universities and colleges around the country have some sort of risk-reduction program in place, but most don't evaluate their program," Gidycz says. "They have no idea if what they have is actually working."
Gidycz' latest research project is one of the first to examine the effectiveness of a sexual assault risk reduction program. At the onset of the study, all participants filled out questionnaires designed to evaluate their sexual assault history, alcohol and drug use behaviors, rape empathy and other behaviors associated with sexual assault and sexual assault awareness.
Women assigned to the risk-reduction program, called the Ohio University Sexual Assault Risk Reduction Program, were divided into groups of 10. Each received background information on sexual assault. They then watched a one-hour videotape, "I Thought it Could Never Happen to Me," which consists of interviews with seven rape survivors who shared in detail their experiences with sexual assault. Participants spent the remaining time dicussing the video and talking about different risk factors identified by the women on the tape.
"The survivors on the video were in different stages of recovery and some were able to clearly identify, in hindsight, some warning signs that should have alerted them to danger," Gidycz says. "Others were not that far along in the recovery process, but program participants were able to identify risk factors just from listening to the survivors' stories."
Two months into the study, participants in both groups filled out the same questionnaires they completed at the study's onset, this time reporting only sexual assaults that had occurred during the two-month period. They repeated the process at six months, reporting assaults that occurred between the two-month and six-month periods.
Researchers had hoped the program would reduce the incidence of sexual assault immediately, but the assault reports at two months were the same in both groups. The fact that the rates for the program group dropped at six months suggests that the information presented in the program may have helped women recognize sexual assault in a way they didn't before, Gidycz says.
"For the women who experienced sexual assault after they took part in the program, many of them may have recognized that experience as a sexual assault when they wouldn't have before," Gidycz says. "They may have been able to put a label on it."
The research was funded by a two-year, $100,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Health, which plans to disseminate results of the study and introduce the program to more than 50 rape prevention/crisis intervention programs around Ohio beginning next year. The agency also will make the information available to the rape prevention unit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and to other violence prevention programs within the health department.
"This program is unique because it has been scientifically researched, which sets it apart from many prevention programs currently in place," says Judi Moseley, program administrator for the Women's Health Section of the Ohio Department of Health. "We're very interested in knowing what works in prevention."
Although her program shows promise, Gidycz is quick to point out that it has been studied only on two college campuses producing mixed results.
"Clearly, it had an impact on reducing revictimization, which is a very positive finding, but I'm not ready to say 'Let's give this to everybody and it will get rid of the problem on your campus,'" Gidycz says. "What this study does provide is a methodology colleges can use to evaluate how well the program they have in place is working and see if it needs to be modified. If a risk-reduction program isn't doing anything more than short-term attitude change, it needs to be modified."
Beginning this fall, Gidycz plans to re-evaluate her program and identify ways to make it more effective. Possible changes could include increasing the amount of time available for discussion about the videotape and dividing the program into three, one-hour sessions. She hopes to renew her study in 1999. Gidycz also plans to create a similar prevention program and study targeted at men, with a goal of reducing male sexual aggression.
Other authors of the study were Cindy Dowdall, Nichole Marioni, Catherine Loh and Joanna Pashdag, all psychology graduate students at Ohio University; Steven Lynn, a former Ohio University psychology professor now at Binghamton University; and Lisa Marmelstein, Jane Stafford and Rachel Fite, all psychology graduate students at Binghamton University. Gidycz holds an appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Written by Kelli Whitlock.