Averting Assault

New study shows that freshman fraternity members who participate in a prevention program end up committing fewer acts of sexual coercion.
December 17, 2007

A new study finds that fraternity members who participate in a one-hour rape prevention program are significantly less likely to report committing a sexually coercive act during their first year of college than are fraternity men in a control group.

The study is unusual in that it documents evidence of actual behavioral changes in a campus setting, in addition to attitudinal changes (which have been the focus of most prior studies). “That has been something that people in the rape prevention community have sought to do for decades,” said John D. Foubert, an assistant professor of higher education at the College of William and Mary and lead author of the study, which was scheduled to be published Saturday in the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal.

The study evaluates the Men’s Program, a prevention program offered by the national nonprofit founded by Foubert, “One in Four,” that maintains chapters at about 30 college campuses and also hires educators who travel by RV to offer the program at another 50 campuses per year. The study tracks 565 men -- 90 percent of males in the freshman class at a “mid-sized campus in the Southeast” -- throughout the course of the academic year. Students in the control group participated in a program that reiterated information on sexual assault already communicated during orientation, Foubert said, while the balance of students participated in the Men’s Program.

The idea behind the Men's Program, Foubert said, “is that you’re going to get a lot farther with men if you treat them as potential helpers rather than potential perpetrators.” The Men’s Program includes a screening of a video that describes a male-on-male rape to foster empathy for survivors among the male participants, and focuses on how men can support survivors and intervene to prevent possible assaults. The program has been the subject of some controversy, as outlined in this 1999 Journal of College Student Development article, particularly because of concerns about the use of a video depicting male rape to foster empathy for female survivors and objections to the program’s appeal to the "men-take-care-of-women archetype.”

In the U.S. Department of Education-funded study, Foubert bolsters results from an earlier research finding that participation in the Men's Program is associated with long-term attitudinal changes, in addition to behavioral ones. Focusing on fraternity members, he finds that participants who went on to join fraternities as freshmen were more than three times more likely than peers to report committing a sexually coercive act -- defined as everything from unwanted touching to rape -- during their first year of college. Foubert found that 8 percent of freshmen who joined fraternities reported committing a sexually coercive act their first year of college, compared to 2.5 percent of men who did not join fraternities.

However, on a survey completed seven months after the program, 6 percent of fraternity members who participated in the Men’s Program reported committing a sexually coercive act, with all of the reported acts among the least severe -- all were in the unwanted sexual contact category. Meanwhile, 10 percent of fraternity members in the control group reported committing a sexually coercive act on the follow-up survey, with those acts spanning the spectrum from unwanted sexual contact to attempted rape. (No one reported rape. While Foubert acknowledged that the dependence on self-reported behaviors might be a limitation of the study, he noted limitations of crime data and indicated that surveys are the best tool available for this sort of study).

“Especially now that we’ve shown some behavioral change we would like to see it spread to other campuses as well while we simultaneously try to improve the program," Foubert said, adding that One in Four's goal is to have a chapter on every campus. He cautioned, however, that the new study was campus-specific and not national. He’s hoping to obtain funding for a multi-campus study of the program’s effects, and is also interested in studying older college students.

Asked about the study Friday, Mary P. Koss, a leader in campus rape prevention research and professor of public health at the University of Arizona, said the study raises a lot of important points. She’d like to see a follow-up study also question fraternity members on their drinking habits in order to see if there’s a difference in reported assaults between fraternity and non-fraternity members once alcohol consumption is controlled, and also would like to see a study replicating Foubert's procedure focused on student athletes. “All of that is characteristic of a good study,” said Koss, who has collaborated with Foubert. “It’s showing where we can go from here.”


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