Responses to the Problem of Acquaintance Rape of College Students
Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.
The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community’s problem.
It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law-enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.
Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.
For further information on managing the implementation of response strategies, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 7, Implementing Responses to Problems.
General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy
Typically, the campus police role in rape prevention consists of providing self-defense training, doing environmental assessments of outdoor areas vulnerable to rape, and recommending the installation of cameras, lights, locks, etc. But these are more responsive to stranger rape, not acquaintance rape.
Educational and skill-development programs are the most effective acquaintance-rape prevention approach. At this point, there is no research to suggest whether other interventions, such as having only single-sex residence halls, enforcing residence-hall visitation rules, placing anti-acquaintance-rape educational posters in residence halls, or banning alcohol on campus, are effective in preventing acquaintance rape.
Although this guidebook does not address investigative procedures and policies, campus and municipal police officers need to be trained in the most up-to-date methods of investigating acquaintance-rape and consent defenses.
University administrators and campus police should allow and encourage confidential reporting even if it doesn’t lead to a criminal or formal administrative investigation because doing so allows university officials to better understand what is happening to students and staff. To the extent permitted by law, victims should be able to confidentially report their victimization to police, student health services, and counseling and pastoral services, and the reports should be analyzed to help determine the extent of and trends in the problem.
Rape-Prevention Program Content
Because most acquaintance-rape cases turn not on whether sexual activity occurred and who engaged in it but, rather, on whether it was consensual, responses to the problem should emphasize ensuring that college students and staff understand 1) what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable under the law and college rules, 2) what actions and conditions increase students’ vulnerability to acquaintance rape†, and 3) what actions to take to prevent or interrupt acquaintance rape‡.
† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 27, Underage Drinking for discussion of reducing underage and binge drinking, known significant contributing factors to acquaintance rape.
‡ Colleges and universities have a consent policy. The best example thus far is from Columbia University and is at www.sexualrespect.columbia.edu under Sexual Respect in the Affirmative Consent section.
Some of the most successful prevention programs have focused on improving bystanders’ abilities to recognize and intervene in acquaintance-rape situations.
Many college rape-prevention programs do not focus on rape myth acceptance, treating rape prevention as a women’s issue, and ignoring how men can help prevent rape by disabusing themselves of rape myths and learning how to intervene in acquaintance-rape situations. Educational programs should involve multiple intervention efforts, with repeated and reinforced exposure to the issue. Programs should focus on changing behavior, not just attitudes, and program evaluations must be done to determine if the various components are effective for your particular population.
Generally, college rape-prevention programs suffer from several weaknesses. Relatively few college rape-prevention programs have been demonstrated to have had a positive impact on preventing sexual assault on campus. Among the common deficiencies of programs are the following:
- Lack of clear goals
- Focus on changing attitudes, rather than behavior
- Lack of emphasis on the responsibility of bystanders
- Lack of distinct programming for those at highest risk, including prior sexual-assault victims
- Lack of follow-up assessment
Mixed-Gender, Gender-Specific and Peer-Delivered Programs
Mixed-gender rape-prevention programs show uneven results in correcting rape myths. Separate programs for men and women can facilitate addressing gender-specific issues. Such programs may also remove the fear of discussing rape in front of peers of the opposite sex. Some colleges use trained students to conduct programs; however, the effectiveness of peer educators—male or female—remains uncertain.
Program Timing and Tailoring
You should conduct rape-prevention programs before the most high-risk times, and again at later intervals, tailoring them to high-risk groups. Because the risk of acquaintance rape is highest during the freshman year, beginning with the first day of school, if you cannot provide rape-prevention programs on the first day of freshman orientation, consider mailing letters or brochures to students and parents before freshman fall classes start, addressing rape and the relevant rules, laws and consequences; as well as parents’ role in educating their students about safe and acceptable conduct.§ Growing evidence has shown that educating the entire freshman class each year enhances bystander intervention, which reduces rape on campus in general.
§ Letters to parents may be effective in widening awareness of the problem. One university asked the parents of incoming freshmen to speak with their son or daughter about rape (as well as several other problems that are significant for freshmen such as binge drinking and hate crimes). At another university, after a gang rape at a fraternity party, the campus police sent a letter warning parents of incoming freshmen, as well as insurance carriers, about fraternities in violation of alcohol laws (Bernstein 1996).
Specific Responses to Reduce Acquaintance Rape of College Students
Acquaintance-rape Awareness and Prevention Education
1. Conducting acquaintance-rape-prevention programs for college men and women. Separate programs for men and women should both make attendance mandatory, both at the initial program and at follow-up programs during the freshman year and at the start of the sophomore year. Key program elements should include the following:
- Surveying of attitudes toward and knowledge about acquaintance rape, to include:
- Preprogram surveying about current knowledge and behavior, including risk factors and risk-reduction techniques
- Follow-up surveying several months after the programs to assess knowledge retention and behavioral change
- Provision of accurate information regarding the following:
- Definitions of stranger, acquaintance, party, gang, and date rape
- The relative frequency of acquaintance rape and stranger rape
- Applicable state laws, and college rules and sanctions†
- Investigative and disciplinary processes for rape cases, and the consequences for seeking reprisal against the victim
- Consent, including the use of scenarios to show what is and is not valid consent
- The relationship between rape and alcohol use‡
- Men’s and women’s responsibilities in stopping acquaintance rape, including responding appropriately in a situation where a peer may be taking advantage of an intoxicated person
- Commonly held misconceptions and myths about a man’s “right” to sex (e.g., if the man has paid for dinner, if the woman is dressed seductively, if the man thinks the woman is a “tease” or flirt, if the man thinks the woman has a crush on him, if the woman consented to a friend)
- How the notion of “scoring” devalues women by treating them as objects of conquest
- The physical and psychological harm acquaintance-rape victims suffer
- Counseling services for men who want to change their aggressive sexual behavior
- Use of realistic scenarios to illustrate risky situations in which men and women may find themselves§
† Each state has its own sexual-assault laws; in many states, the use of physical force is no longer a requirement for a rape to have occurred.
‡ Rape-prevention programs for college students should be combined with substance-abuse-prevention programs, especially regarding binge drinking. Typically, substance-abuse-prevention programs focus on risks such as drunken driving, fistfights and vandalism, but the main emphases should be on the risks of sexual miscommunication and rape (Abbey et al. 1996).
§ For scenario-based brochures to educate students about sexual assault and rape reduction, see http://www.popcenter.org/problems/rape/PDFs/men_web%20rev.pdf and http://www.popcenter.org/problems/rape/PDFs/women_booklet.pdf.
Programs for women should include the following additional elements:
- Understanding and acknowledging when a rape has occurred
- Understanding the importance of reporting the incident to authorities in stemming repeat offending
- Provision of accurate information regarding the following:
- Resources on how to report sexual assault and rape on and off campus, and the availability of anonymous reporting if a victim prefers
- Discussion of risk factors, including the potential for repeat victimization
- Discussion of how friends can help and support acquaintance-rape victims
- Discussion of counseling services for rape victims
- Use of realistic scenarios to illustrate risky situations in which college women may find themselves and the development of emotional and physical skills in avoiding and getting safely out of dangerous situations
Research has found that comprehensive programs with these key components can reduce sexual victimization of college women by up to half, including for those women who have previously been raped or experienced attempted rape.
“Whereas offenders are clearly responsible for all acts of sexual aggression and preventative efforts with men should be a priority, ethically it is essential that women be provided with the information and skills to reduce their risk for sexual assault.
Gidycz, McNamara, and Edwards, 2006
2. Educating police about acquaintance rape of college students. Educating police about the extent of acquaintance rape (compared with stranger rape) of college students, about the patterns related to it, and the meaning of consent can provide them with important context for responding appropriately to it. The training should cover the research on high-risk times and high-risk groups, the elements of effective rape-prevention programs, and the need for police involvement in the programs.† Police involvement can help assure students that the college takes acquaintance rape seriously.
† Although this guide does not address investigative issues, it is important to note that police training for acquaintance-rape investigations must include components on evidence gathering when the offender will likely claim consent. For information about the different investigative methods for acquaintance vs. stranger rape cases, see material published by the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women.
3. Conducting acquaintance-rape prevention programs for college administrators, campus judicial officers and other key campus personnel. Top campus administrators should be called upon to clear the way for police to provide education and prevention programming in residence halls, fraternities and sororities, to athletic teams, and incoming students during orientation. It is also necessary to educate all campus healthcare staff, residence directors and assistants, and fraternity and sorority advisors about rape, as well as advise counseling personnel about the need to track anonymous reporting, ask students about prior rapes, and develop safety plans for prior victims.‡ In addition, police must educate athletic coaches about rape prevention. Some coaches will not need much persuading, others may be convinced of its importance as a means of keeping their athletes from jeopardizing their own or their team’s reputation. Since coach support of rape-prevention programs is crucial for success, police may want to advocate that coaches’ active participation in the programs be used as one measure in coaches’ performance evaluations.§
‡ Police should ask those in college counseling services to develop in-depth interview protocols for rape victims, including questions about prior victimization. Counselors should develop safety plans with victims that help them more accurately assess risky situations.
§ It is also wise to provide adequate information to faculty, particularly those whom rape victims are likely to approach because their courses cover rape (e.g., psychology, sociology, women’s studies, criminology, and criminal-justice faculty). Police can also recruit faculty to conduct or participate in rape-prevention programs.
4. Conducting acquaintance-rape prevention programs geared toward campus athletes and fraternity members. Acquaintance-rape prevention programs should be tailored to focus on the specific risks for athletes† and fraternity members. Program elements include the following:
Surveying of athletes’ and fraternity members’ attitudes toward and knowledge about acquaintance rape, to include:
Preprogram surveying about current knowledge and behavior, including risk factors and risk-reduction techniques
Follow-up surveying several months after the programs to assess knowledge retention and behavioral change
Provision of accurate information regarding the following:
- The need for athletes to separate appropriate athletic aggression from inappropriate sexual aggression
- Discussion stressing that athletes’ prominent status on campus does not entitle them to sex and that women must freely give consent
- Discussion stressing that athletes should not equate the behavior of some women fans with that of all women, and that a fan’s perceived interest in an athlete does not constitute consent, and that consent by a woman with one athlete does not imply consent to a teammate
- Discussion of the increased risk of rape when all-male groups (such as athletes and fraternity members) live together in houses with private rooms, where parties are frequent, and where alcohol is available
- Realistic approaches athletes and fraternity members can use to counter any “group think” supporting male sexual dominance of females and the myth that women secretly want to be sexually overtaken
- An emphasis on the importance of intervening in and reporting rape, despite team or fraternity pressure to maintain secrecy
† If athletes are educated about rape only after an incident occurs, they may perceive it a punishment rather than a proactive rape-prevention effort.
Responses with Limited Effectiveness
5. Providing student escort and/or shuttle services. Many colleges have student escort and/or shuttle services so that women do not have to walk alone on campus late at night. These services may reduce the risk of stranger rape, but not of acquaintance rape; they do not take the place of adequate acquaintance-rape prevention.
6. Providing rape aggression defense training. Many college public safety departments offer women students rape aggression defense training to increase their ability to fend off would-be rapists. Police now commonly include such training in acquaintance-rape prevention programs, no longer focusing only on stranger rape. However, this training is
Too limited to cause significant reductions in acquaintance rape
Not sufficiently focused on the most prevalent types of campus rape
Inadequate for causing any behavioral change in male students
Colleges may choose to include the training in their stranger-rape-reduction efforts; however, it is unlikely to reduce acquaintance rape.