Workshop Aims to Help Women Defend Themselves

Young women face highest risk of sexual assault

Prof. Paula Barata

Prof. Paula Barata

One-quarter of all violent crimes reported to police involve intimate partner violence, and most of those victims – 80 per cent – are female, according to 2011 data from Statistics Canada. Psychology professor Paula Barata wants those numbers to be smaller, preferably zero.

Barata is one of six co-investigators from the University of Guelph, the University of Windsor, the University of Alberta and Tufts University working on a sexual assault resistance program for first-year female university students.

She says the program is based on the premise that men alone can prevent sexual assault but that women can, in some instances, reduce their risk of becoming a victim of rape. The 12-hour program is designed to teach participants about healthy sexual relationships, common risk factors for sexual assault, strategies for overcoming emotional and social barriers to forceful resistance, and verbal and physical self-defence. “The theory behind that is, if you know what you want, you’re in a much better position to strongly resist what you don’t want,” says Barata.

The researchers hope that teaching women how to resist sexual assault by a stranger can also help them defend themselves against intimate partner violence. “The same things that make you feel uncomfortable in a potential sexual assault situation are the same kinds of things that make you feel uncomfortable in an intimate partner relationship when things start to go wrong.”

She advises women to pay attention to warning signs common in abusive men, such as ignoring a woman’s limits and attempting to control her behaviour, which can be precursors to violence. “It’s tricky because you may want to be intimate,” she says, adding that balancing intimacy with caution can be difficult. If women find themselves in a situation that starts to feel uncomfortable, she advises them to trust their feelings and leave if they can, draw attention if others are nearby, and use strong verbal and physical force. If one tactic doesn’t work, try something else.

Young women need resistance strategies, she says, because they face the highest risk of sexual assault. “The statistics show that it is quite prevalent in university settings,” Barata explains. This is partly due to the age of both men and women on campuses and their dating practices. “Meeting new male friends and starting new relationships is a risk factor simply because some of those men might be perpetrators.”

Other situational risk factors for sexual assault include alcohol consumption by one or both parties or by the people around them, making the latter less likely to intervene. Isolation can also play a role in sexual assault if there’s no one around to help, either because the assault takes place in a remote location or in a place where no one can hear what’s going on, such as at a party.

Barata says intimate partner violence can happen to anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Women with higher incomes tend to have more resources available than lower-income women. “It’s harder to get back on your feet,” she says of abused women who lack financial resources. “Intimate partner violence itself is a risk factor for poverty.”

Nine hundred students are participating in the program, including about 350 from U of G. Half of the women have received sexual assault resistance training; the other half were  given 15 minutes to read brochures about sexual assault and ask questions, which is what is typically offered at most Canadian universities, says Barata. Preliminary results are expected to be available by the end of spring 2014. The study received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The program was developed by principal investigator Charlene Senn, a psychology professor at the University of Windsor. Barata, a former student of Senn’s, says most sexual assault defence programs are too brief and fragmented in what they cover. “The research shows that when women learn only the self-defence, it tends not to be as effective, because they need to get over the emotional resistance to using self-defence.”

She says women may be reluctant to use physical force against an attacker, because they aren’t sure whether it will work. But she says women who fight back face a lower risk of getting hurt. Women also may be less likely to use forceful resistance against someone they know than against a stranger. “Women are socialized to be nice, and that can put them at a disadvantage when they need to use physical force,” says Barata.

During her undergrad, she studied psychopathy among prison inmates. While reading victim impact statements, she noticed that many of the victims were women. “I was getting disillusioned with working with perpetrators,” she says. “I wanted to work with victims.”

The on-campus workshop for women aged 17 to 28 runs Nov. 16 and 17, and is still accepting participants. For more information, call 519-824-4120, Ext. 56567, or email resist@uoguelph.ca.

Other campus resources include Wen Do women’s self-defence classes, offered by the Guelph Resource Centre for Gender Empowerment and Diversity. Fall classes are full, but more will be offered in the winter semester. You can also reach Counselling Services at 519-824-4120, Ext. 53244.

If you need help off-campus, call the Guelph-Wellington County Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centre at 519-837-6400, Ext. 2758, or Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis at 519-836-1110.