College Rape Prevention Programs Are Making Problem Worse, Study Finds

Sexual assault prevention programs that have been implemented across American college campuses could actually be making the problem worse, according to research published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior.

The programs, aimed at young men who are at a high risk of committing acts of sexual violence, can create "hostile reactions" which lead to more aggression against women, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found.

The Violence Against Women Act, reauthorized in 2013, required federally funded universities to provide rape prevention and awareness programs on campus. But there are currently no legal requirements in place to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs, and few assessments have been conducted to date.

Neil Malamuth, a professor at UCLA, and his team reviewed the few existing studies that have looked into this issue to try and understand their effectiveness.

The team found that, at best, only a small number of interventions have been effective. More worryingly, the studies also indicated that the prevention programs could be doing more harm than good.

"In examining the literature on what has already been done, we became dismayed that the limited data available indicates that with such men, the widely used interventions appear to be having the opposite of the intended effects and that there is no attention given to this serious problem," Malamuth told PsyPost.

One 2015 study that the authors reviewed, for example, found that men who scored highly in hostile sexist attitudes became more aggressive towards women after reading messages promoting gender equality.

The authors of this study put such reactions down to a psychological phenomenon known as the "boomerang effect."

"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," they wrote in the paper.

In this case, sexually aggressive men may respond badly to messages promoting gender equality or anti-violence because they feel that they are entitled to have sex with any woman they want.

How effective are rape prevention programs on college campuses? iStock

The boomerang effect can also be seen in other situations: For example, graphic images on cigarette packages may actually fail to deter smokers from buying them because they feel their personal choice is threatened, as one 2015 study suggests.

Malamuth says that the new findings could be used to develop more effective rape prevention programs in future.

"We need to consider using better interventions well before college age when the likelihood of change may be considerably more limited than at earlier phases of life," he said.