Campus rape interventions may be having the opposite of the intended effect

Campus interventions aimed at preventing rape may not be having much positive impact on men who are at relatively higher risk for committing sexual assault. The interventions could actually be making the problem worse, according to a scientific review published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior.

“For many years, my associates and I have been studying the characteristics of men in the general population who are at relatively higher risk for committing sexual assault,” explained study author Neil M. Malamuth, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles.

“I became interested in modifying some of those characteristics to reduce risk. 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.”

The 2013 Violence Against Women Act by Congress included new requirements for how federally funded colleges and universities handle sexual assault. The law also required universities to provide prevention and awareness rape intervention programs.

But there is little evidence that the current anti-rape programs have a positive effect. Malamuth’s review of previous research suggests that the interventions could result in a boomerang effect that makes some men more likely to endorse sexually violent attitudes and behaviors.

“Current interventions on college campuses appear to being doing more harm than good with high risk men and the interventions must be evaluated and improved,” Malamuth told PsyPost.

For example, a study published in 2015 found that men high in hostile sexist attitudes became more aggressive towards women after reading messages emphasizing gender equality.

Some of the boomerang effect could be attributed to psychological reactance, the tendency to have resistant thoughts when a message is perceived as threatening an individual’s sense of freedom.

“Sexually aggressive men may also experience a specific form of reactance to antiviolence messages about sex because they assume they are entitled to have sex with women who refuse them,” the article explained.

Similar boomerang effects have been observed in other domains. A study in 2015 found that reactance prevented graphic images from scaring smokers away from cigarettes.

“We need to ask how can the knowledge we have developed about the characteristics of high-risk men be used to design more effective programs,” Malamuth said. “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.”

“I believe there is a reluctance to discuss the issues we highlight because of a sense that there may not be much that can be done and that there is a risk that those who want to stop the programs altogether will use this information to justify stopping interventions altogether rather than addressing how to improve them,” he added.

The article, “Sexual assault interventions may be doing more harm than good with high-risk males“, was authored by Neil Malamuth, Mark Huppin, and Daniel Linz.