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Equipping Women to Stop Campus Rape

The New York Times with Charlene Senn 30 May 2018

Berta Felix was a junior at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton in the fall of 2016. Around Christmas, she went out for drinks with a male friend. Ms. Felix did not consider it a date. Her friend did, apparently. He insisted on paying for the drinks. He drove her home, and in her front yard, he started kissing her.

“I don’t want this,” she recalled telling him.

“I paid for the drinks,” he said. “I thought you wanted to go out and have fun.” He continued to kiss her.

Ms. Felix slapped him, jabbed her elbow in his stomach, and marched into her house.

She reacted the way she did because she had just completed a new 12-hour sexual assault-reduction course at Florida Atlantic, called Flip the Script. Among other lessons, Flip the Script teaches that acquaintances, not strangers, pose the greatest risk; how to recognize the warning signs of coercion that often precede assault; and how to respond effectively.

Ms. Felix didn’t miss the warning. “If I hadn’t taken the course, I would not have caught the signs,” she said. “We were in the driveway of my house and I had my keys in hand. He could have persisted, come in and carried on.”

Ms. Felix has not had to employ her Flip the Script lessons again, but she remains an enthusiast. She originally took the course just to get involved in something. But she liked it so much she took it again — and again. “It was an eye-opener, and every time I learn something new,” she said. Now that she’s going back for graduate school, she wants to take Flip the Script a fourth time.

An undergraduate woman has a greater than one-in-10 chance of experiencing rape or attempted rape — it’s a huge issue on every campus — and nothing tried so far has worked very well to reduce sexual assault overall.

That makes the extraordinary results of Flip the Script particularly welcome. In one study, participants in the program were victims of 46 percent fewer rapes than a control group, and two-thirds fewer attempted rapes — which means that women were able to head off trouble at a very early stage.

Two years after the course ended, the results still held for attempted rape, while rapes were 31 percent lower than in the control group.

Those results are especially impressive because the study was very strong — a randomized control trial carried out with 893 female students at three Canadian universities. Evidence-Based Programs, a website that evaluates research, cites Flip the Script as one of only 10 programs in any field that it has placed in its Top Tier — the only one in violence prevention that made the grade.

One school that tested it is the University of Windsor in Ontario, where the program’s author, Charlene Senn, is a professor of psychology and of women’s and gender studies. Dr. Senn built the program on top of an older and shorter course named Assess, Acknowledge and Act. Later, Sarah Deatherage-Rauzin, the health promotion coordinator at Florida Atlantic, called its successor Flip the Script, and that’s what a lot of universities call it now.

Flip the Script trains only women (including all people who identify as women). Here’s what it teaches them:

The perpetrator of a sexual assault — and only the perpetrator — is at fault.

“People think, ‘Oh, she’s dressing that kind of way,’” Ms. Felix said. “We learned it is never a woman’s fault if she is raped.”

Most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.

“The creep in the bushes is not reality,” said Abigail Brickley, a student at the University of Iowa who said that participants found this one of the most surprising revelations of the class. “You are most likely to be attacked by someone you already have some sort of relationship with — an acquaintance or friend.”

That makes it harder to respond. “Shock, disbelief and questioning of our own perceptions are normal reactions, but they delay our acknowledgment of the danger and our action,” said Dr. Senn.

Most sexual assaults take place in private.

Only 17 percent occur with a third person present. So training bystanders to intervene, although useful, has limited value.

Sexual assault often presents early warning signs.

“Like somebody who tries to separate you from the group, who’s very persistent in insisting you get another drink or he drive you somewhere,” said Ms. Brickley. “Like not taking no for an answer.”

Women are socialized to not resist sexual assault.

“It’s the feeling, ‘I have to be nice. I don’t want to offend this person,’” said Dusty Johnstone, the sexual misconduct and prevention officer at the University of Windsor; she runs the program there. “All the ways women are socialized dampen their ability to resist.”

Crying and pleading do not work very well.

“The most effective responses are loud and obnoxious,” said Dr. Johnstone. “We teach women to breathe and to yell. Yelling gives you energy. Use that verbal forcefulness, and if that doesn’t work, physical force.” The program spends an hour on verbal response and two hours on physical self-defense.

Dr. Senn had concluded that there was something missing in the original Assess, Acknowledge and Act program: Women need to be clear about their own desires and boundaries. What do I like? What do I want to do with this person? What would I never consider doing?

“Sexual assault often starts with verbal coercive pressure,” she said, with assailants telling their victims, “Other women would do this,” “What kind of a prude are you if you won’t do this?’’

“When you know your own desires, the pressure being applied is much more visible to you much more quickly,” she said. “You don’t spend time thinking: ‘Maybe I am just inexperienced. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.’ You can say, ‘I don’t want that,’ and it becomes really obvious faster that it’s a danger.”

So she added a unit on sexuality and relationships, using a curriculum called Our Whole Lives.

She tested the course with the sexuality unit, and without it. It worked better with.

If something cuts the risk of rape by nearly half, you’d think universities would be eager to put it to use. But Dr. Senn said that only 10 schools are using it — seven in Canada, one in New Zealand and two in the United States, (Florida Atlantic was the first in the United States, followed by the University of Iowa). Ten more schools — in Canada, Australia and the United States — are in the process of starting.

Ms. Deatherage-Rauzin said that a year after their training, only one woman among Florida Atlantic’s nearly 100 participants said she had needed to use the physical defense strategies. Several women reported using the techniques short of physical self-defense. None had been raped.

One challenge is enrollment; 100 students isn’t many, out of Florida Atlantic’s 30,000. “Most students are commuters here,” said Ms. Deatherage-Rauzin. “It’s a 12-hour program. Getting them to commit to come to campus for after-hours events is a little difficult.”

When the study of the program was being conducted at Windsor, it came with funds to help the school recruit participants. Now the school tries to find other ways. “We’ve even given away French fries,” said Dr. Johnstone, to encourage women to spend a few minutes listening to the recruiting pitch.

The small enrollment level has made Flip the Script relatively expensive — $250 per participant, according to Evidence-Based Programs. But that is expected to drop, because it includes giving facilitators training — a one-time expense — and word-of-mouth might increase participation.

Flip the Script and other programs that work exclusively with women differ with the approach most universities are now adopting, which is working with bystanders — essentially, treating everyone as a potential ally in stopping sexual violence. Many bystander programs (such as Green Dot and Bringing In the Bystander) do work to shift attitudes and increase bystander intervention. Over the long term, they can change social norms, which is crucial. But they’re not enough in the short term, given that so few sexual assaults are committed in the presence of third parties.

Many colleges also require entering students to do short online or in-person trainings on sexual consent and on alcohol — by far the most prevalent date-rape drug, involved in 96 percent of college sexual assaults. (Here’s one novel program that reduces heavy drinking on campus by telling students how much their peers really drink.)

What about teaching men not to rape? Great idea! But we don’t know how. “By the time they’re in mid- to late adolescence, their sexual scripts and view of masculinity are pretty fixed,” said Rory Newlands, a researcher on sexual violence at the University of Nevada, Reno. The only programs for males that show effects so far, for example Safe Dates, work with middle-school boys.

Ms. Deatherage-Rauzin said that when she first read the research on Dr. Senn’s program she was impressed, but hesitated to try it. Training women to reduce their risk has been seen as telling women: “Rape is your fault for not acting like a ‘good girl.’”

“At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and the American College Health Association were not recommending risk reduction,” she said. “The programs at the time were more prone to victim-blaming and laden with myths like the danger of strangers. They put out tools and strategies that were not effective. Much of the time it was presented as: It’s your responsibility to take care of yourself — dress appropriately.”

But Flip the Script isn’t telling women to behave better. It’s showing them how to recognize and react to danger signs in men. Dr. Senn points out that participants are less likely to blame the victim after they take the course. (Both the college health association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommend Flip the Script.)

“The curriculum talks about how the tendency for women to blame themselves is actually an inhibitor to an effective response,” said Sara Feldmann, compliance coordinator in the University of Iowa’s office of sexual misconduct. She brought Flip the Script to Iowa, which offers it for credit. “If you’re stuck in ‘Oh, I didn’t communicate clearly’ or ‘How did I get myself here?’” she said, “it doesn’t help you.”

“Any kind of a solution that aims its strategies at women makes some people uncomfortable,” said Ms. Feldmann. “We don’t want to do anything to perpetuate the tendency in our culture to blame victims. If we absolutely knew how to change perpetrator behavior, we would be doing that. But until we figure that out, this is a wonderful program to be able to offer.”