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Students: Do Anti-Sexual Assault Courses Actually Work?

Let’s talk training. Universities insist online sexual assault awareness training is working. But does the data show that?

Universities around the country have begun implementing sexual assault awareness and prevention training programs at an increased rate (since the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act was passed in 2013).

For most college students, this is old news, as many universities have already begun to require students participate in some form of compulsory bystander intervention and awareness training.

The most widespread program is a 45-minute course created by the company EverFi called Haven. As of the 2015-2016 school year, Haven has been implemented in over 600 universities in the United States (npr.org), making it the effective benchmark for online awareness and prevention programs at higher education institutions. However, how well does compulsory online sexual assault training work?

Effecting real change, or fulfilling a requirement?

Critics of this program and others like it worry that the marketing campaigns of these companies have taken advantage of the immediate need of universities to fulfill the requirements of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act. Plus, with universities all over the country coming under fire for their handling of sexual assault cases on campuses, the desire for programs which can be implemented quickly and efficiently has outweighed the desire to effect actual change on college campuses.

In some cases, the efficacy of bystander intervention programs has been abysmally low – as demonstrated in a 2011 study, published by Violence Against Women, which concluded that

there was little to no change in the number of sexual assaults, despite an increased rate of “prosocial bystander behavior” – the number of times a bystander intervened.

The creation of effective awareness and prevention training can’t be reactive. That is, training that will actually make a difference will be initiatives that are incentivized by a call for real change, not a desire to meet minimum requirements.

Schools and universities need to be creating comprehensive programs which are:

  1. geared towards providing both the training that their students need to become aware – programs like Haven –
  2. as well as programs which give students the immediate tools to keep themselves safe.

One such program, the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act program has yielded very promising results. During a trial which was conducted amongst first year university students EAAA results saw a drop of 46% in completed rapes and a drop of 63% in attempted rapes. (!)

Critics of this program point out that while effective, it still puts the pressure on the at-risk individuals to protect themselves, rather than on preventing potential perpetrators through education on consent.

Think of it this way, though. Bystander intervention training, which Haven focuses on in conjunction with awareness training, is similar in some ways to vaccination. The strength of vaccines lies in the communal protection they provide. When the majority of people are vaccinated against a virus, there is a low likelihood that a virus will spread or that you will contract a virus.

Bystander intervention works to increase the number of aware individuals and arm them with knowledge which may help them prevent a sexual assault from happening.

However, this requires that a large number of people are both aware and willing to intervene. In this case, defensive training which is created specifically for women would serve as an emergency room or urgent care – providing a service to at-risk individuals who need tools for prevention before a large population can be given bystander intervention training. In a strong healthcare system, both of these would be implemented to give the strongest chance of reducing the number of cases of a virus or illness.

On the Way to Prevention Altogether

Many universities appear to treat the 2013 legislation as a box to check during their orientation programs, but doing the minimum work required won’t be enough to significantly reduce sexual assaults. Students around the country lack the resources and proper training to do their part to end sexual assault.

Shouldn’t universities be doing everything in their power to give students those tools? Bystander intervention training and preventative training for at-risk individuals – these prevention tactics are not mutually exclusive.

Courses like Haven may be the benchmark for sexual assault prevention on college campuses, but don’t students deserve as many tools as a university can provide to help keep them safe?


Universities and individuals have a role to play in addressing and ending sexual assault. Do you know yours?

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