Challenging Dogma

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Monday, April 30, 2007

Rape Crisis Intervention: A Critique of Individual Prevention, And an Argument for a Community Based Approach-Thomas A. Amoroso

Abstract: The current approach to prevention of sexual assault stresses watchfulness on the part of women (who are potentially at risk), and to a lesser extent stresses knowledge of “what constitutes sexual assault” for both men and women. Programs of this type have been shown to have limited effect on the rate of sexual assault. We argue that a more community based approach, based on the use of community norms of behaviour to help guide both men and women around the issues of sexual and power behaviour. We use elements of self-efficacy theory to critique the current approach, and suggest new and innovative approaches.

Rape and rape prevention strategies

Open on a dark parking lot, a single woman walking alone, her shoes clicking on the pavement. Sound over footsteps, in a more bass tone indicating men’s shoes, apparently behind her. Close up on the woman’s face - she looks behind her, an apprehensive look on her face.
--A possibly familiar opening scene from a public service announcement promoting rape prevention.

Current rape prevention programs (more accurately, rape avoidance programs), especially on college campuses, place their major emphasis on increasing individual awareness of the risk factors for rape; these include such items as having company when walking, especially at night, using care at home with regard to letting people into your home, and avoiding alcohol in certain social situations (1, 2). These approaches stress individual responsibility for preventing a potential rapist from targeting a specific person; the assumption is that if you are forewarned of the dangers of walking alone at night, you will be protected from rape. These interventions all are based on the “Health Belief Model”, which posits that by providing information to individuals about specific health risks, a rational person will act to to avoid or minimize those risks, thus minimizing or avoiding the health problem in question. It can be shown that, despite active research in rape prevention models, most rape prevention models are quite similar (3).

Unfortunately, the Health Belief Model (HBM) is inadequate to the task of preventing rape for several reasons. First and foremost, the HBM is, at its core, a model of rational action; if you know about a health problem or risk, you will, as a rational actor, act to avoid the risk. This model fails to take into account several core aspects of human experience, especially the emotional aspects. It also fails to take into account the concept of competing risks, or the hierarchy of risk, which people face daily. People will take risks based considerations other than the risk; while a woman may acknowledge rationally that she is at risk to be raped if she walks home alone at night, this might be outweighed by a need to get home to a child left alone at home due to a lack of child care, or some other compelling reason.

Moreover, the HBM fails to explain why rape takes place at all. In some ways, we can see the model used as another example of holding the victim responsible for being raped; had she been following the guidelines for avoidance, she wouldn’t have been raped. A more useful model would place the responsibility for rape correctly: in the hands of the rapist. In order to do this, we need to investigate why rape occurs, and look at how we can identify potential rapists or rape situations and defuse them.

Rape is a complex behaviour. At its core, the act of rape is sexual contact in the absence of consent. However, unanswered in the bare definition are many questions. Who can consent to sex, in terms of mental capacity to consent, which may be compromised by youth or drugs? What constitutes consent, and what communicates refusal? What leads a perpetrator to have a different answer to these questions than a victim? There are societal influences which can promote or prevent rape, or which see a set of facts as rape or not rape, depending on circumstances. Rape is a traumatic event for the victim, but likely less so for the rapist.

To the extent that there are shared answers and beliefs between rapist and rape victim, Belief System Theory (BST) indicates that rape is less likely to occur (4). In short, BST states that “The ultimate function of human values is to provide us with a set of standards to guide us in our efforts to satisfy our needs and...maintain and enhance self-esteem” (5). Community education efforts directed at educating people as to the traumatic effects of rape on the victim, those close to her, and on the general tone of society (prevalence of rape creates a culture of fear, especially around issues of sex and intimacy), and encouragement of more open dialogue around issues of sex and consent, could change the standard of behaviour with respect to sex, especially in the crucial, formative adolescent and young adult years, when many people are initiating their first sexual experiences.

Rapists tend to see their victims as objects, rather than people, and there are signal differences between rapists and their victims on assessments such as “How traumatic is it to be raped?”, and “A woman will say no even if she means yes”; in this model, education of potential rapists (either all men in general, or men who are known to have committed rape) regarding the effects of rape on an individual could be effective in reducing rape. Several studies have approached this using an intervention aimed at college males, and found that it was possible to induce lasting attitudinal change (6, 7); whether this leads to long-term behaviour change has not been studied, and there is no data on whether this intervention can reduce rape rates in the studied population (college males).

Other systemic causes of rape, such as socioeconomic status and substance abuse, as well as cultural factors in both victims and perpetrators, can also be addressed in rape prevention campaigns. The United States is ideally a ‘melting pot”, where people from different countries and cultures come and are forged into an alloy called “American”. More accurately, this mixing produces a mosaic or quilt; there are clear edges where birth culture and adopted culture meet. Nowhere is this more likely than in core concepts involving very private acts, and whether one regards rape as a crime of power and control or an expression of deviant sexuality. The sexual nature of the crime puts it squarely in the realm of privacy and secrecy.

In a study of recent immigrants to Israel from the Ukraine (8), it was found that Ukrainian men felt they had to be “tough and violent”, specifically in order to be “the boyfriend of a pretty girl”. Sex is seen as a biological need, unrelated to love or emotions; thus, if a man ‘needs’ sex, he is, in the Ukrainian cultural view, at least somewhat justified in using some level of force to satisfy that need. (An analogous ‘need’ would be for food or water; if you need food, there is thought to be some ethical justification in stealing it from someone who has food). Thus both men and women might see a man as helpless to avoid committing the act of rape, as they see him as acting from a ‘biological need’ rather than a voluntary desire.

Furthermore, it is (again!) the woman’s responsibility to avoid putting herself in situations where she might be the target of this ‘need’. (In some ways, cross-cultural studies are revealing of Western attitudes we thought we’d left behind; in the Ukraine, a woman who is raped is thought to be ‘spoiled’, and because of this, is not encouraged to report the rape, either by her relatives or by her own internal incentives - who wants to reveal they are spoiled? While those of us in the West would like to believe these attitudes long dead, I suspect that there remains enough of this attitude to inhibit reporting of rape).

The same study revealed that attitudes among sex offenders from the Ukraine reveal a more external locus of control compared to Western offenders, especially at younger ages. Ukrainian teenagers, trained in the Soviet system of subservience to the State in all aspects of life, frequently also blame the State when they commit criminal acts. Bandura (9) reports that “The capacity to exercise some measure of control over one's thought processes, motivation, affect, and action operates through mechanisms of personal agency”, but this seems to be less the case with the Ukrainian teenagers studied, who appear to look to (or at least are willing to blame) an outside locus of control over their actions for any actions which are later perceived as wrong. It may be possible to demonstrate that an increase in self-efficacy, in the form of a changed masculine ideal different from the one perceived by the Ukrainian teenagers, would decrease rates of rape in that population; to the extent that these attitudes bleed over into more mainstream culture, this may affect rates of rape across the spectrum. Just as some cultures do not start from the assumption that rape is a power crime, or that it’s necessarily ‘the man’s fault’, an argument can be made that even Western culture has not completely made that leap as yet.

Finally, the issue of community involvement in rape prevention is only now beginning to be addressed. In a recent Boston Globe article, bartenders and bar owners in a Boston neighborhood were invited to assist in preventing rape by calling taxis for intoxicated women (at increased risk of being raped) rather than “simply shooing them out the door”, and making it clear to bar owners that calls to police to assist with intoxicated female patrons were welcome (it had been thought by bar owners that making this type of call would invite negative attention from the licensing board) (10). Increased community involvement of this type may be more effective than any other intervention in the prevention of rape in a community. Unfortunately, most ‘community prevention’ programs are, in the end, rape crisis treatment and mitigation programs; one study (11) does show that a community intervention program can change attitudes and behaviour in a way that might prevent rapes from occurring, as well as mitigating their effects afterwards. Specifically, the researchers used “a community of responsibility model to teach women and men how to intervene safely and effectively in cases of sexual violence before, during, and after incidents with strangers, acquaintances, or friends”. [Emphasis added]

In summary, rape is a complex of individual actions set against a cultural and societal matrix which both condemns it and allows it to occur. Education efforts have been ineffectual in reducing the incidence of rape, although this is a matter of some controversy; rates of rape have been steadily decreasing over the past five years, in the setting of an across the board decrease in violent crime. Rates of rape have decreased somewhat more than other crimes. The cause of this decrease is controversial; rape prevention advocates are not yet prepared to assign credit to rape prevention programs, while crime prevention advocates are eager to claim credit for their programs for the decrease. Regardless, it is clear that many, if not most, rape prevention programs do not take into account the complex cultural and interpersonal factors in order to truly prevent rape across the spectrum of behaviour. The approach most law enforcement agencies have taken is akin to military target hardening and avoidance, rather than approaching the root causes of rape - cultural attitudes which allow men to rape with little or no emotional or legal consequence, and cultural attitudes which condone rape as being beyond the control of men who ‘need’ sexual gratification. While these attitudes may be more prevalent in non-Western cultures, it seems clear that Western culture is not free of these tropes, and more can be done to change the thinking, and the actions, of our culture with respect to rape prevention.


1. Hendersonville Police Department. Rape Prevention Tips, Hendersonville, AZ.; this site is representative of literally dozens available via a Google search using keywords “rape prevention”, and is also representative of programs run at many area colleges
2. Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment, Bedford, MA
3. Townsend S, Campbell R, Homogeneity in community-based rape prevention programs. J Comm Psych 2007 May; 35(3): 367-382
4. Quackenbush RL Comparison and Contrast Between Belief System Theory and Cognitive Theory. J. Psychology 1989 Jul;123(4): 315-328
5. Ibid. p.315
6. O’Donohue W, Yeater E, Fanetti M , Rape Prevention With College Males J Interpers. Viol 2003 May; 18(5): 513-531
7. Johansson-Love J, Geer JH, Investigation of Attitude Change in a Rape Prevention Program. J Interpers Viol. 2003 Jan; 18(1): 84-99
8. Sherer M, Etgar T Attitudes Toward Sex and Sex Offences Among Israeli and Former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic Youth J Interpers. Viol. 2005 Jun; 20(6): 680-700
9. Bandura et al, Sociocognitive Self-Regulatory Mechanisms Governing Transgressive Behavior. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 2001; 80(1): 125-135
10. Bar owners asked to help stop rapes, Radin CA, Boston Globe February 10, 2007
11. Banyard VL et al. Rape Prevention Through Bystander Education: Bringing a Broader Community Perspective to Sexual Violence Prevention

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