Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Acquaintance Rape of College Students

Researchers suggest that educational 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 halls visitation rules, placing anti-acquaintance rape educational posters in residence halls, or banning alcohol on campus, are effective in preventing acquaintance rape.

General Considerations About Acquaintance Rape Prevention Programs

Because acquaintance rape of college students often involves conflicting accounts of what occurred and, without the help of witnesses, determining which account is more credible, tailored prevention is the primary approach police, especially campus police, should use. 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. There is a strong argument that these approaches do not focus on preventing the most prevalent type of campus rape: acquaintance rape. If campus police predominantly invest in such approaches, the message to students is that "real rape" is stranger rape, and that is what police prevent, while acquaintance rape prevention is left to other campus departments or student organizations.

Educational programs should involve multiple intervention efforts, with repeated and reinforced exposure to the issue.62 Police and other trained professionals should conduct the programs before the most high-risk times, and again at later intervals, tailoring them to high-risk groups. 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.†

For a full discussion of evaluating rape prevention programs, see Chapter 6 in Finn (1995) [Full text], and for a thorough discussion of the effectiveness of typical college rape prevention programs, see Yeater and O'Donohue (1999). [Full text].

Generally, researchers suggest that most college rape prevention programs suffer from several weaknesses including:63

  • A lack of clear goals
  • A focus on changing attitudes, rather than behavior
  • Lack of distinct programming for those at highest risk, including prior sexual assault victims
  • A lack of follow-up assessment

Mixed-Gender, Gender-Specific and Peer-Delivered Programs

Mixed-gender programs show uneven results in changing rape-supportive attitudes.64 Consequently, a number of researchers advocate separate programs for men and women to address 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 use of peer educators, male or female, remains unexamined empirically.65 In addition, there is no evidence that student role-playing is more effective than a combined lecture/video approach.66

Program Timing

As noted earlier, the risk of rape is highest during the freshman year, beginning with the first day of school. If police or college administrators cannot provide rape prevention programs on the first day of freshman orientation, they can mail letters to students and parents before freshman fall classes start, addressing rape and the relevant rules, laws and consequences; the letters should also stress the importance of parents' educating students about acceptable conduct.†

Letters to parents may be effective in widening interest in 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).

Key Responses

Outlined below are key elements of acquaintance rape prevention responses targeting different campus groups.

1.  Conducting acquaintance rape prevention programs for college men in general. Programs for men should focus on rape reduction. Attendance should be 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:
  • A preprogram survey of the men's knowledge of and behavior concerning acquaintance rape.
  • The provision of accurate definitions of stranger, acquaintance, party, gang, and date rape, and information about related state laws and sanctions, as well as college rules and sanctions. Each state has different rape laws; in many states, the use of physical force is no longer a requirement for a rape to have occurred.
  • The use of realistic scenarios to illustrate risky situations in which men may find themselves.

One campus public safety director collaborated with the municipal police department to create a scenario-based brochure to educate male students about sexual assault and rape reduction. They also developed a scenario-based brochure tailored to women college students.

  • A comparison of the frequency of acquaintance rape with that of stranger rape.
  • A discussion of the relationship between rape and alcohol use.‡

Researchers agree about the importance of combining rape prevention programs for college students 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).

  • A discussion about consent, including the use of consent scenarios to show what is required. Men cannot legally engage in intercourse without explicit consent. State laws require consent, and in most states, it cannot be obtained if the person is drunk.
  • A discussion of commonly held misconceptions 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).
  • A discussion about scoring and how it devalues women by treating them as objects of conquest.
  • An emphasis that the harm acquaintance rape victims suffer is the same as that suffered by stranger-rape victims.
  • A discussion of counseling services for men who want to change their behavior.
  • A discussion of men's role in stopping acquaintance rape.
  • A review of the investigative and disciplinary processes for rape cases, and of the consequences for rape and for seeking reprisal against the victim.
  • A follow-up survey several months after the programs to assess knowledge retention and behavioral change.
2.  Conducting acquaintance rape risk-reduction programs for college women. Even though the vast majority of college rapes entail men raping women, interventions geared toward changing only men's behavior will not be 100 percent effective. It is also important to provide risk reduction programs for women. Outlined below are program elements researchers suggest.
  • A preprogram survey of women's knowledge of acquaintance rape, risk factors and risk reduction techniques.
  • The provision of accurate definitions of stranger, acquaintance, party, gang, and date rape, and information about related state laws and sanctions, as well as college rules and sanctions.
  • The use of realistic scenarios to illustrate risky situations in which college women may find themselves.
  • A comparison of the frequency of acquaintance rape with that of stranger rape. Research suggests that many women are in denial about their risk for acquaintance rape. Although some women are knowledgeable about acquaintance rape, they think it is more likely to happen to others than to themselves.67
  • An emphasis that the harm acquaintance rape victims suffer is the same as that suffered by stranger-rape victims.
  • A discussion of the need for explicit consent.
  • A discussion of accurate labeling of rape. Acknowledging when an assault occurs and the importance of reporting in stemming repeat offending.
  • A discussion of risk factors, including the potential for repeat victimization.
  • A discussion of how friends can help and support acquaintance rape victims.
  • A review of the investigative and disciplinary processes for rape cases.
  • A discussion of counseling services for rape victims.
  • A follow-up survey several months after the programs to assess knowledge retention and behavioral change.
Research has found that comprehensive programs with these key components can reduce sexual victimization of college women by up to half, but only for those women who have not previously been raped or experienced attempted rape.†
Hanson and Gidycz (1993). For a discussion of the need for different training for rape victims and attempted rape victims, see Breitenbecher and Scarce (1999).
3.  Developing risk reduction plans to prevent repeat victimization. Police must develop specific programs for women raped prior to college, as researchers have found that the programs described above do not reduce their risk for repeat victimization.68 It is theorized that women who have previously been raped require additional training to accurately assess risky situations.69 Police should enlist campus counselors to develop tailored risk recognition and reduction plans for prior victims. Counselors should intermittently recontact the women to determine if the plans have been effective, and to track repeat victimization in order to improve programs and safety plans.

Representatives from campus counseling services should attend rape education programs and offer to meet privately with victims, helping them design individualized safety plans to reduce their risk of repeat victimization.

4.  Educating police about acquaintance rape of college students. Educating police about the extent of acquaintance rape (compared with stranger rape) of college students, and about the patterns related to it, can provide them with an important background context. 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 National Center for Women and Policing.

5.  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.70 It is also necessary to educate all campus healthcare staff, residence directors and assistants, and Greek 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 indepth 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.

6.  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 researchers suggest include the following:

§ If athletes are educated about rape only after an incident occurs, they may perceive it a punishment rather than a proactive rape prevention effort.

  • A preprogram survey of athletes' and fraternity members' knowledge of and behavior concerning acquaintance rape.
  • An emphasis on athletes' using aggression only on the field.

Many of the gang rape charges involving athletes "seem to involve members of such contact team sports as football, basketball and lacrosse, rather than athletes from such individual nonaggressive sports as tennis and golf" (Parrot et al. 1994).

  • A discussion stressing that athletes' prominent status on campus does not entitle them to sex. Women must freely give consent.
  • A 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.
  • A discussion of the increased risk of rape when allmale 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.
  • Approaches for resisting pressure to participate in "group sex" acts.
  • An emphasis on the importance of intervening in and reporting rape, despite team or fraternity pressure to maintain secrecy.
  • Follow-up assessments to determine behavioral change.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

7.  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.

8.  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. Researchers find that 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 students71

Colleges may choose to include the training in their stranger rape reduction efforts; however, it is unlikely to reduce acquaintance rape.