We're in favor of doing everything we can do to protect young women on campus (or anywhere else) from becoming victims of sexual violence–that's a no brainer.
But a new study suggests that some preventative programs may actually backfire. The researchers found alarming evidence of a "boomerang effect" in some campus programs. Male students at risk of aggressive behavior actually became more inclined towards aggressive or violent behavior after participating in some of these programs, according to the study.
The findings are the subject of an article in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior.
Reason's Liz Wolfe summarized the findings:
For instance, many schools have employed a bystander model for sexual assault education, which "targets all community members as potential bystanders and seeks to engage them in proactive behaviors that establish intolerance of violence as the norm." This is all well and good, but Malamuth et al. say there's "no evidence" that the method works at "changing high risk males' attitudes, emotions, empathy levels, or behaviors." In other words, many schools are using prevention programs that are unlikely to affect the demographic of students most likely to commit sexual assault. (The study focuses on high-risk males because men are statistically far more likely to rape than women are.)
These high-risk males might, in fact, be made more likely to engage in sexual violence as a result of these interventions. One of the papers reviewed, from 2015, suggests that "according to reactance theory, when people perceive that their freedoms are threatened they may resist such influence and assert autonomy by moving in the opposite direction to the perceived influence."
This is hardly a controversial observation. When college orientation programs preach the ills of excessive drinking, do students at risk for that behavior mostly fall in line? Or, do they decorate their beers with koozies emblazoned with the school's anti-drinking policy (a popular practice at my alma mater) and roll joints using pages of the school's honor code?
. . .
Another 2015 study found that "men low in sexism showed less aggressive tendencies following exposure to messages emphasizing norms of gender equality…Conversely, men high in hostile sexist attitudes showed a boomerang effect of increased sexually aggressive tendencies." A 2009 study examined the results that rape prevention efforts––namely a 50-minute video––had on low- and high-risk college-aged men. Looking at the whole sample of men after weeks, researchers noted "an increase in victim empathy," but this can mostly be attributed to the low-risk group. High-risk men "were more likely at follow-up to report higher sexually coercive behaviors" than before.
The number of campus rape prevention programs has grown by leaps and bounds since the re-authorized Violence Against Women Act in 2013 mandated that public universities that are recipients of federal funds implement sexual assault prevention programs.
The Violence Against Women Act is coming up for renewal again, and this is an opportune time to find out which programs work. As Reason points out, good intentions are not enough.