Updating Strategies for Sexual Assault Prevention

Resilient Societies

The #MeToo movement called attention to the problem of widespread sexual assault on college campuses. At Texas State University, Dr. Erica Nason, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, is developing innovative strategies for assessing the problem and its potential solutions. 

Women talking in a group

Nason explains, “Although college sexual victimization is a startlingly high occurrence, we don’t have good interventions for preventing or reducing the rates of sexual assaults on college campuses.” Nason’s research relies on innovative applications of technology to explore how colleges and students can more effectively address the college sexual assault epidemic.

Nason’s research aims to not only broaden our understanding of how sexual communication fails, but to explore how men and women can learn to communicate consent or lack of consent more effectively.

Sexual assault is a dynamic problem, falling on the continuum of sexual activity from enthusiastic consensual sex to violent rape. Typically, sexual assaults that involve strangers and whose behavior is premeditated, predatory, violent, and serial are considered the most serious and get the most attention. Most research, however, indicates that less than 10 percent of rapes are committed by an assailant unknown to the victim; the majority are committed by a friend, romantic partner, family member, or acquaintance. Furthermore, most sexual assailants minimize their use of physical violence. A disproportionate focus on violent “stranger rape” results in inadequate strategic interventions (e.g., pepper spray is not a viable strategy for preventing rape by a victim’s boyfriend).

Man harassing woman

1 in 4: college men who admit engaging in some form of sexually coercive behavior

Nason’s research aims to redress this imbalance. “Some research using broader measures of sexual aggression shows that one in four college men have engaged in some sort of sexually coercive behavior. There is a group in the middle of the continuum who are not serial rapists, but might be misinterpreting cues related to consent. They are misperceiving, but could become motivated to improve the accuracy of their perceptions during sexual encounters.” These students, whose perception and communication skills are lacking, are the focus of Nason’s research.

two students talking

For example, Nason recently conducted a study in which undergraduate women watched a series of video clips of a male actor attempting to persuade a woman to have sex using increasing levels of coercion. After watching each clip, the women were asked to respond as though they were speaking with the actor. Their reactions were videotaped and reviewed by three groups of evaluators: the women themselves, a panel of sexual assault experts, and undergraduate men. Each evaluator rated how effective the responses were at reducing the woman’s risk of assault. Nason determined that “The undergraduate women and experts had a high level of agreement with regard to how effective the responses were. The undergraduate men, overall, were more critical, and typically rated the women’s responses as less effective.” This study’s innovative use of video recordings provided a rich data set that included key markers of communication, such as “tone of voice, response latency, and facial expressions”. Her findings suggest a more complex set of questions for future research regarding how to identify behavioral factors that affect the viability of sexual assault prevention strategies.

90%: sexual assaults committed by a perpetrator known to the victim

Nason’s future research plans include investigating how Texas State students’ strategies for seeking and expressing consent have changed in light of the #MeToo movement. Additionally, Nason has a pending application for a National Institutes of Health grant, in collaboration with Dr. Scott Smith and other partners from Wayne State University. Nason proposes to examine communication about consent using virtual reality technology. That project would record young men’s responses as they interact with a virtual avatar of a woman, and would examine the effects of alcohol on their communication strategies.

The #MeToo movement created space for deeper conversations about consent, particularly on college campuses. Instead of minimizing the prevalence and seriousness of sexual violence, today’s students are more aware of the problem and motivated to address it. 

Student using virtual reality glasses

Nason’s research aims to not only broaden our understanding of how sexual communication fails, but to explore how men and women can learn to communicate consent or lack of consent more effectively. Virtual reality may be an ideal way to teach students how to communicate about consent. Nason explains, “Social behaviors are so complex, but they happen so quickly. In any interaction, I have to accurately receive the information, go through the list of possible responses in my head, pick what I’m going to do, do it, and then monitor the response. Being able to practice it in a safe space, such as virtual reality, has the potential to enhance the ability to do it when the stakes are higher.”

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