As I review the new research published each week on sexual violence and intimate partner violence, sometimes I feel a tension between trusting science and trusting my own beliefs.  There are times that existing research indicates something that I do not believe. In those moments I have to reevaluate my beliefs and determine where I stand.  Sometimes current research will shift my thinking; and there are times that a research study does not convince me, either because the research was framed problematically, is limited in its scope, and/or is not answering the crucial question.
This brings me to a recent study on rape prevention written by Foubert et. al. ePublished in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.  This study examines The Men’s Program, which is described in this study as had having long-term success in changing men’s attitudes and behaviors about rape (according to studies previously conducted by Foubert et. al.)
The program is designed to increase men’s empathy with survivors of sexual assault.  Here is the description of the program from the article:

…presenters of The Men’s Program show a DVD describing a male-on-male rape experience designed to teach men how a rape experience might feel describing a male-on- male rape experience designed to teach men how a rape experience might feel. After the video is shown, presenters process the video, noting the presumably heterosexual orientation of the perpetrators… and they follow this by making connections between a male-on-male and a male-on-female rape experience to facilitate empathy toward rape survivors. Later, men are taught how to support a rape survivor. Men then learn the basics of defining sexual consent and hear strategies for confronting peers as bystanders when they overhear others tell jokes about rape, act in ways that demean women, or brag about abusing women. Following that, men are taken through a guided imagery of a woman close to them who experiences rape under the influence of alcohol while a bystander watches and does nothing. … Participants then brainstorm ways that they could intervene in situations where an alcohol-related rape might occur. The program itself lasts about 1 hr and is usually presented by four undergraduate male peer educators, often part of peer education groups named One in Four

I am uncomfortable with this program.  The video used in it was designed to train male law enforcement officers to understand what the experience of female victims of sexual assault.  Its graphically highlights the grotesqueness of the rapists and of the actual assault. I can see how the video has impact on male participants as they are guided to consider the experience of being violated. But I am unsure that will lead men to see their own behavior as the same way as the male-on-male stranger rape described in the video.
And I have several questions: Does this video retraumatize men who have been sexually assaulted? Would the homophobia of some men be reinforced by the situation portrayed in the video?
Based on my experiences as a sexual violence prevention educator and the approaches that I am comfortable with, I would not use this video in prevention program.
Yet, in this study and in several other studies Foubert et. al. have demonstrated positive results in reducing rape acceptance myths and decreasing self-reported likelihood of raping.  How do I balance the results of these studies with what I think about the prevention program itself? Do these scientific findings warrant overriding my thoughts on this program?
In my understanding of evidence bases, there are several types of evidence: research based evidence, experiential evidence and contextual evidence.  To understand the use of evidence we need to consider all types, not only evidence from research. (Click here for a PreventConnect web conference describing of these types of evidence.)
I really like this recent study’s use of qualitative measures to ask college student men about the impact of the program after they participated in a One in Four presentation. (The students were evaluated at the end of their Sophomore year after being exposed to the program as first-year students in September) I share with the researchers the value of gathering data when using the method of asking open questions like “Are any of your attitudes now different as a result of seeing the program?” and “Have there been any situations in which you have behaved any differently in any situation as a result of seeing the program?” These types of questions provide a systematic way to collect information on how a prevention program makes an impact on its participants. In fact, I often recommend this methodology as part of a good strategy to evaluate prevention programs.
When I read this study and reviewed previous research, I had to reexamine my concerns. After considerable reflection, I still remain skeptical about aspects of this program:

  • One hour presentations alone seem unlikely to really change behavior. One hour is not long enough to process both attempts at empathy enhancement and effective bystander intervention skills training. The program’s bystander training is limited to having participants brainstorm bystander responses. Research on effective prevention programs suggests that dosage (the amount of time receiving information) is an important element for useful change in prevention work. I do think that one hour presentations could be a useful piece of a comprehensive prevention effort.
  • An empathy-based framework for prevention is problematic in sexual violence.  While empathy seem intuitively helpful to understand a victim perspective, it is not clear to me that this approach is what changes a potential perpetrating behavior. Once agin, empathy makes sense to me as part of a prevention effort.
  • While the authors claim in this article that “…Schewe also reported that depicting a man as a survivor always led to lowering rape myth acceptance or likelihood of raping yet depicting a female survivor in programs for men either increased men’s rape myth acceptance or their likelihood of sexual aggression.” (Italics in original) My review of Schewe’s chapter find only the recommendation that when conducting empathy exercises, interventions should include a male as a victim.  I did not see any claims of always lowering rape myth acceptance or likelihood of sexual aggression. The apparent exaggeration in this study is troublesome to me.
  • I would like to see more research on this program conducted by an independent researcher in a replicated setting, instead of all of the research conducted only by the developer of the program.
  • And I don’t like the key element of the prevention program – the use of the video.

I want to see effective strategies that lead to men not raping women. I want to see positive results. And I want to use research to improve our prevention efforts.
And I want a program that I can stand behind.
Is The Men’s Program a way to do this? What do you think?
See below for full citation and abstract on this article.
In Their Own Words: Sophomore College Men Describe Attitude and Behavior Changes Resulting From a Rape Prevention Program 2 Years After Their Participation.
Foubert JD, Godin EE, Tatum JL. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2009; ePublished December 29, 2009.
Click here for a link to the abstract on the journal’s web site.
(Copyright © 2009, Sage Publications)
The study conducted involved assessing students from a Southeastern public university during two academic years, after their participation in an all-male sexual assault peer education program. The study findings revealed that 79% of 184 college men reported attitude change, behavior change, or both. Furthermore, a multistage inductive analysis revealed that after seeing The Men’s Program, men intervened to prevent rapes from happening. Participants also modified their behavior to avoid committing sexual assault when they or a potential partner were under the influence of alcohol. Implications for future research were discussed.