By Emily Barske, Business Record editor

Teresa Treat. Submitted photo

When it comes to sexual assault prevention, colleges have often focused on telling people to be safe – in other words, how to not become a victim – but have less often focused on how to prevent people from becoming perpetrators of sexual violence. As prevention efforts have increased on campuses in the last decade, institutions have been faced with a dilemma: How could they warn students about staying safe without sounding like they’re blaming the victim? (Check out NPR’s reporting on this from 2014 and a recent editorial from the student newspaper at Temple University.) 

When I recently saw a story in the Daily Iowan about a University of Iowa professor developing strategies to prevent sexual assault on college campuses, I noticed the approach was different. Researchers’ analysis of prevention was focused on stopping perpetrators – and not blaming victims. Teresa Treat, the professor, conducted research with over 500 students from UI and Arizona State University to assess risk factors and develop strategies to prevent sexual assault. 

She found four major risk factors involved in sexual aggression: heavy drinking, misperception of a partner’s level of sexual interest, not seeking consent for sexual activity, and engagement in casual sexual behavior, the Daily Iowan reported. 

I asked Treat a few questions about the research. She answered via email. 

What’s one of the biggest takeaways you learned in conducting this research?

Prior research has developed protective strategies that reduce the likelihood of serious problems associated with heavy drinking among college students (e.g., alternating drinking alcohol and water, making sure you have a designated driver). We wanted to try to do something similar for sexually coercive and aggressive behavior — that is, to begin to develop and evaluate modifiable strategies that might reduce the likelihood that college men engage in sexually aggressive behavior. We focused on men who are sexually attracted to women in this initial study but are broadening our focus in ongoing research.

What we did: We developed potential protective strategies to target four well-established risk factors for male-initiated sexual aggression toward women: heavy drinking, misperception of a partner’s level of sexual interest, not seeking consent for sexual activity, and engagement in casual sexual behavior. Next, we looked to see whether college men regularly use the strategies and whether their use is related to prior sexual aggression. 

[The students were asked about whether they had used potential strategies to prevent themselves from being sexually aggressive. Items on the list of those strategies included things like explicitly asking a potential sexual partner for consent to engage in sexual behavior, backing off and checking to see if your partner’s enthusiasm decreases, or being aware that alcohol impairs your judgment and that of your partner, which can lead to behavior you or your partner later regret.]

What we found: The overwhelming majority of college men surveyed use the potential protective strategies regularly in their sexual interactions with women. About 15% of college men surveyed indicated they rarely use the potential protective strategies designed to reduce the risk of engaging in sexual aggression. Additionally, these men are much more likely than their peers to report having been sexually aggressive in the last year. 

Important caveats: It is important to note that we do not know yet whether using the strategies actually reduces the likelihood of future aggression, but we’re hoping to look at this in a prevention study that we’re launching. We also have revised our measures to make them more applicable to those across a wider spectrum of gender and sexual minority identities, and we currently are administering them to a more gender- and sexual-diverse sample of undergraduates.

With April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, what’s one thing you really want people to know?

Nonconsensual sexual experiences unfortunately are very common in our society, and they can result in marked negative consequences. People often think of sexual assault as something that happens between two people who do not know each other and that involves physical force. In reality, this represents a minority of sexual assaults. Unwanted sexual experiences range from harassment and unwelcome advances to unwanted sexual contact to attempted or completed intercourse without consent. They may occur because a perpetrator applies verbal pressure, shows displeasure, threatens a relationship or position, gets someone drunk so they are less able to resist, threatens force, or uses force. Most commonly, these experiences occur among persons who know one another already, rather than strangers. Thus, it is critically important to continue to develop more effective methods to prevent sexual assault and to respond more effectively and compassionately to those who experience it.  

A lot of sexual assault prevention tends to focus on how people can keep themselves safe, or in other words not be a victim, but this can place undue blame on victims when someone is assaulted. Your research helps flip the script to show that risk factors for an assault happening are within the potential perpetrators. What’s the significance of that?

Our research develops and evaluates potential protective strategies that are designed to target four well-established risk factors among college men for male-initiated sexual aggression toward women: heavy drinking, misperception of a partner’s level of sexual interest, not seeking consent for sexual activity, and engagement in casual sexual behavior. Future research will need to determine whether it is possible to increase college men’s use of these strategies, and whether increasing strategy usage decreases future aggression. 

Now that you’ve conducted research looking at risk factors, how do you think the information should be used to prevent sexual assaults?

We do not know yet whether using the strategies actually reduces the likelihood of future aggression, but we’re hoping to look at this in a prevention study that we’re launching. 

Knowing this research, what do you think our institutions and society should do to better educate people about sexual assault?

It would be premature to speculate about the prevention implications of the current work before we know whether using the potential protective strategies actually reduces the likelihood of future sexual aggression. We’re hoping to begin to evaluate this question in a prevention study that we’re launching.


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