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New UB sexual assault prevention program is training close friends to take action

WBFO News file photo

A three-year developmental study to create a new sexual assault prevention training program is starting at University at Buffalo. Researchers at the college received close to a $650,000 dollar grant.

The main concept behind the training is to make the friends of victims more suited to diffuse sexually threatening situations for women.

UB psychology professor Jennifer Read said getting someone to intervene on someone else’s behalf to help them prevent sexual assault depends a lot on their sense of personal responsibility.

“Again and again this is what studies were finding,” said Read. “I think that this was one of the things that made us think, it’s really friends more than anyone else who is going to have in these social contexts that sense of responsibility and relationship to one another that I think is going to be helpful in intervening to prevent sexual assault.”

Read said many women already are working out systems to protect one another, but many believe they lack the knowledge and skills to intervene.

“They’re working out systems to keep track of one another at a party to make sure somebody doesn’t drink too much. To keep an eye on the signals of whether their friends are enjoying the attention of somebody or not. Whether somebody is getting too close. Friends are really poised to notice those things,” she said.

Right now it’s just female friends, although that could change in the future if the study proves to be successful. 

“We felt like it changed the dynamic a little bit, when you’re talking about a male and a female friend,” she said. “One of the things that we learned from our focus groups is that one of the ways women rely and importantly so from their male friends is physical protection.”

The research, which is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, will also address the role intoxication plays in preventing sexual assault intervention. One in five will experience unwanted sexual contact while attending college. Almost half of those assaults involve alcohol and occur in social settings.

“Sometimes there is a perception that maybe you know the creepy person whose lurking in the corner is trying to assault you. And sometimes that’s the person that is going to be a perpetrator,” Read said. “But we know from this kind of research that a lot of time the perpetrator is somebody you know. They might even be a friend. You wouldn’t necessarily be able to identify who is a perpetrator and who is not.”

Read said it’s human nature to think things happen to other people and not to you. That is why the focus of the study is on friends.

“I think the goal is to really generate a conversation that feels pretty natural,” she said. “For our intervention to work within that natural dynamic of their friendship, to just steer the conversation to talk specifically about sexual risk in a way that doesn’t feel invasive or intrusive or uncomfortable.”

Students will complete online assessments following the training that will help researchers examine changes in helping attitudes and behaviors. If successful, it could be something brought to college administrators on the future.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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