By David Lee on February 24, 2010 · tagged as , , , ,

Considering research results from a rape prevention program

As I review the new research published each week on sexual violence and intimate partner violence, sometimes I feel a tension between trusting science and trusting my own beliefs.  There are times that existing research indicates something that I do not believe. In those moments I have to reevaluate my beliefs and determine where I stand.  Sometimes current research will shift my thinking; and there are times that a research study does not convince me, either because the research was framed problematically, is limited in its scope, and/or is not answering the crucial question.

This brings me to a recent study on rape prevention written by Foubert et. al. ePublished in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.  This study examines The Men’s Program, which is described in this study as had having long-term success in changing men’s attitudes and behaviors about rape (according to studies previously conducted by Foubert et. al.)

The program is designed to increase men’s empathy with survivors of sexual assault.  Here is the description of the program from the article:

…presenters of The Men’s Program show a DVD describing a male-on-male rape experience designed to teach men how a rape experience might feel describing a male-on- male rape experience designed to teach men how a rape experience might feel. After the video is shown, presenters process the video, noting the presumably heterosexual orientation of the perpetrators… and they follow this by making connections between a male-on-male and a male-on-female rape experience to facilitate empathy toward rape survivors. Later, men are taught how to support a rape survivor. Men then learn the basics of defining sexual consent and hear strategies for confronting peers as bystanders when they overhear others tell jokes about rape, act in ways that demean women, or brag about abusing women. Following that, men are taken through a guided imagery of a woman close to them who experiences rape under the influence of alcohol while a bystander watches and does nothing. … Participants then brainstorm ways that they could intervene in situations where an alcohol-related rape might occur. The program itself lasts about 1 hr and is usually presented by four undergraduate male peer educators, often part of peer education groups named One in Four

I am uncomfortable with this program.  The video used in it was designed to train male law enforcement officers to understand what the experience of female victims of sexual assault.  Its graphically highlights the grotesqueness of the rapists and of the actual assault. I can see how the video has impact on male participants as they are guided to consider the experience of being violated. But I am unsure that will lead men to see their own behavior as the same way as the male-on-male stranger rape described in the video.

And I have several questions: Does this video retraumatize men who have been sexually assaulted? Would the homophobia of some men be reinforced by the situation portrayed in the video?

Based on my experiences as a sexual violence prevention educator and the approaches that I am comfortable with, I would not use this video in prevention program.

Yet, in this study and in several other studies Foubert et. al. have demonstrated positive results in reducing rape acceptance myths and decreasing self-reported likelihood of raping.  How do I balance the results of these studies with what I think about the prevention program itself? Do these scientific findings warrant overriding my thoughts on this program?

In my understanding of evidence bases, there are several types of evidence: research based evidence, experiential evidence and contextual evidence.  To understand the use of evidence we need to consider all types, not only evidence from research. (Click here for a PreventConnect web conference describing of these types of evidence.)

I really like this recent study’s use of qualitative measures to ask college student men about the impact of the program after they participated in a One in Four presentation. (The students were evaluated at the end of their Sophomore year after being exposed to the program as first-year students in September) I share with the researchers the value of gathering data when using the method of asking open questions like “Are any of your attitudes now different as a result of seeing the program?” and “Have there been any situations in which you have behaved any differently in any situation as a result of seeing the program?” These types of questions provide a systematic way to collect information on how a prevention program makes an impact on its participants. In fact, I often recommend this methodology as part of a good strategy to evaluate prevention programs.

When I read this study and reviewed previous research, I had to reexamine my concerns. After considerable reflection, I still remain skeptical about aspects of this program:

  • One hour presentations alone seem unlikely to really change behavior. One hour is not long enough to process both attempts at empathy enhancement and effective bystander intervention skills training. The program’s bystander training is limited to having participants brainstorm bystander responses. Research on effective prevention programs suggests that dosage (the amount of time receiving information) is an important element for useful change in prevention work. I do think that one hour presentations could be a useful piece of a comprehensive prevention effort.
  • An empathy-based framework for prevention is problematic in sexual violence.  While empathy seem intuitively helpful to understand a victim perspective, it is not clear to me that this approach is what changes a potential perpetrating behavior. Once agin, empathy makes sense to me as part of a prevention effort.
  • While the authors claim in this article that “…Schewe also reported that depicting a man as a survivor always led to lowering rape myth acceptance or likelihood of raping yet depicting a female survivor in programs for men either increased men’s rape myth acceptance or their likelihood of sexual aggression.” (Italics in original) My review of Schewe’s chapter find only the recommendation that when conducting empathy exercises, interventions should include a male as a victim.  I did not see any claims of always lowering rape myth acceptance or likelihood of sexual aggression. The apparent exaggeration in this study is troublesome to me.
  • I would like to see more research on this program conducted by an independent researcher in a replicated setting, instead of all of the research conducted only by the developer of the program.
  • And I don’t like the key element of the prevention program – the use of the video.

I want to see effective strategies that lead to men not raping women. I want to see positive results. And I want to use research to improve our prevention efforts.

And I want a program that I can stand behind.

Is The Men’s Program a way to do this? What do you think?

See below for full citation and abstract on this article.

In Their Own Words: Sophomore College Men Describe Attitude and Behavior Changes Resulting From a Rape Prevention Program 2 Years After Their Participation.

Foubert JD, Godin EE, Tatum JL. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2009; ePublished December 29, 2009.

Click here for a link to the abstract on the journal’s web site.

(Copyright © 2009, Sage Publications)

The study conducted involved assessing students from a Southeastern public university during two academic years, after their participation in an all-male sexual assault peer education program. The study findings revealed that 79% of 184 college men reported attitude change, behavior change, or both. Furthermore, a multistage inductive analysis revealed that after seeing The Men’s Program, men intervened to prevent rapes from happening. Participants also modified their behavior to avoid committing sexual assault when they or a potential partner were under the influence of alcohol. Implications for future research were discussed.

David Lee

More Posts by David Lee

David S. Lee, MPH, is the Director of Prevention Services at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault where he provides training and technical assistance on prevention. David manages the national project PreventConnect, an online community of violence against women prevention practitioners, funders, researchers and activists. For over 27 years David has worked in efforts to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John D. Foubert, Ph.D. February 24, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I appreciate David’s candid observations about this article. This and other articles researching The Men’s Program can be found on the website http://okstate.academia.edu/JohnFoubert

I have a few points to raise in addition to what have been raised. First, though the video mentioned was originally designed to educate police officers, it was redesigned to be shown to a broader audience and to depict the perpetrators as being known to the survivor. One of the points of this educational stimulus tool is not to be an exact match for what every campus rape consists of, but rather to be a rape situation that can be contextualized through the provided script to teach men what a rape feels like. Numerous studies published on this issue, including one showing that men’s empathy toward female rape survivors increases after seeing the video, demonstrate this (Foubert & Newberry, 2006).

Many of the educational methods we use in sexual assault prevention make people uncomfortable. Often making people uncomfortable, to some degree, can promote learning. Rape is obviously an uncomfortable topic. Scheel, Johnson, Schnieder & Smith (2001) teach us not to make men so uncomfortable that they tune us out. Still, there are appropriate contexts in which to talk about a male-on-male rape experience, just as during a take back the night march or other campus awareness programs on sexual assault, there are places where it is appropriate for women to discuss their experience of sexual assault. I always find it so odd when people ask whether the video in The Men’s Program retraumatizes men who have been sexually assaulted when we (almost) never hear it asked whether a take back the night rally will retraumatize female survivors. In the latter case, precautions are in place to provide support to survivors. When The Men’s Program is presented, the support services are offered as well. I think there is a note of sexism in such objections to discussing male on male rape in that some find it perfectly fine to talk about male on female rape, but how dare we talk about male on male rape. This is unfortunate. Male on male rape is part of some men’s experience and can’t be denied. Educating men about it is important, and helps them understand how rape might feel.

Would the homophobia of some men be reinforced by the situation in the video? Surely some men who see the video will be homophobic. Some men who see it might not pay attention to the fact that the men depicted are made out to be heterosexual men using rape and battery to assert power and control over another man. Some men may not pay attention when peer educators emphasize this point. But, those who do attend and hear about presumably heterosexual men who rape a man, who hear their peers describe how many male-on-male rapes occur with heterosexual perpetrators, hear a message that helps dismantle the link between rape and homophobia and they come away better off for hearing it.

Many of us who do rape prevention bring different experiences with us to the table, and not all of us will be comfortable presenting different programs. Surely not everyone is going to be comfortable presenting this program. And not everyone is going to value quantitative and qualitative research, sharing the perspectives of students from our nation’s college campuses, published in scholarly journals as evidence of a program’s viability. Whether such research compels people to believe in a program’s worth is an individual decision.

The post above misses the most significant results of studies on The Men’s Program. Foubert, Newberry & Tatum (2007) found that high risk men who saw the program committed fewer and less severe incidents of sexual assault an academic year after seeing the program than those who didn’t see the program. This is behavior change, not just changes in attitudes or likelihood of raping.

One can conclude in the face of evidence to the contrary that a program of a certain length couldn’t have the effects it has been shown to have. One can conclude this based on intuition that it seems unlikely. I urge readers to decide for themselves — when you make a decision about what to believe about the effectiveness of a program, when you see over a dozen studies containing the voices of over 1,000 students, do you believe their voices or do you find the voice of one person who says it doesn’t sound likely to be more compelling?

An empathy based framework is only one part of this program. The bystander based framework is equally important. It is the combination of the two that has led to behavior change.

In his chapter, Schewe reported that every study of a male-on-male rape prevention program reported change in the desired direction. He also, as stated in the above post, stated that empathy approaches should include a male story. Both my statement and the statement that interventions should include a male victim are accurate. There was no exaggeration; a suggestion to the contrary is no helpful to this discussion.

An article will be published in early 2011 in another setting by another author. Wish granted!

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