But Does it Work? Exploring the Efficacy of Sexual Assault Prevention Programming in Higher Education

At this point it goes without saying, but sexual assault continues to be a severe public health challenge for college campuses. While reports vary, approximately 20% of college women and 5% of college men experience some form of sexual assault during their time on campus. Sexual violence continues to be prominently featured in the national spotlight as news coverage and research involving high-profile cases with celebrities, athletes, politicians, and college campuses make headlines and there has been increased pressure on institutions of higher education to address this issue. In response, campus administrators have intensified efforts to comply with both Title IX and the Clery Act, federal legislation that demands campus communities be fully informed regarding issues of public safety and crime prevention.

While there has been considerable focus on how incidents should be handled after they occur, there is also increased pressure for campuses to develop, apply, and evaluate sexual assault prevention programs that are rooted in best practice. To date, however, there is relatively little peer-reviewed research on the efficacy of sexual assault prevention programs for college students.

That’s because measuring impact on this issue is really hard. Many might assume the desired outcome of this type of programming would be to REDUCE reports of sexual assault and relationship violence. However, given that these programs often increase clarity on the definition of sexual assault and help students to feel more comfortable coming forward with reports to their school administrators, we often see INCREASES in reports of these types of incidents over time (which are typically drastically under-reported). Given the sensitivity of this content area and the social desirability of certain questions, we also find that students often overestimate their own abilities to intervene or respond to these incidents before they are provided with proper context around the issue. Some students may even feel targeted by the messaging of programs and respond very negatively to what they see as challenges to their self-concepts and belief systems. For all these reasons, recognizing a desirable pre-to-post shift in attitudes, behaviors, and experiences can often be difficult.

Experts in the field of sexual assault prevention, like our colleague Alan Berkowitz, recommend bystander intervention and correcting misperceived norms as two of the most promising prevention practices, and a number of recent studies have reported encouraging results for such programs. Just ask the researchers at the National Social Norms Center at Michigan State University, these interventions have been shown to reduce misperceptions across a variety of domains, including alcohol use and sexual assault, which in turn helps reduce perceived normative pressures to engage in unhealthy, high-risk, or even illegal behaviors, and perceived social barriers against bystander intervention. Because most college students endorse positive attitudes and behaviors, the “bystander approach” is particularly powerful as it allows educators to reach students not as potential victims or perpetrators but as contributors who can take action to promote a safe and healthy campus community.

EVERFI’s courses on sexual assault prevention focus on these specific areas in an effort to shift attitudes and behaviors among students in higher education and create safer communities. A manuscript highlighting the campus-level impact of our sexual violence prevention course for incoming college students was recently published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. If rigorous scholarly literature makes your eyes cross, we’ve created this one-page summary of key findings. The main takeaway of this study was that the vast majority of institutions using the course saw positive improvements in students’ bystander intervention ability/intent (98%), victim empathy/ support (84%), and social norm perceptions (75%).

While more research on the impact of these programs is sincerely needed, these findings are extremely encouraging for all of our partners and all campuses that are utilizing universal prevention methods at scale for their student populations. When these programs are designed with research and best practices in mind and then implemented with fidelity, it is truly great to see these interventions making a major impact on the culture of safety for the entire student population.