Teaching friends how to protect one another from sexual assault on college campuses

College girls on campus.

UB researchers receive $649,000 NIAAA grant to develop sexual assault prevention program that trains friends to take action

Release Date: December 4, 2018

Portrait of Jennifer Livingston.

Jennifer Livingston, PhD, co-lead investigator and associate professor in the UB School of Nursing.

Portrait of Jennifer Read.

Jennifer Read, PhD, co-lead investigator and professor and director of clinical training in the UB Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Two conditions that must be in place in order for others to take preventive action are a relationship with the potential victim and a sense of personal responsibility to her.”
Jennifer Read, professor and director of clinical training in the UB Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. — University at Buffalo researchers have received a nearly $649,000 grant to develop a new sexual assault prevention training program that aims to transform friends of victims from bystanders into guardians.

The training may help diffuse potential sexually threatening situations for women, of whom one in five will experience unwanted sexual contact while attending college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Nearly half of these assaults involve alcohol and they often occur in social settings where others are present, such as parties, says Jennifer Read, PhD, co-lead investigator and professor and director of clinical training in the UB Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Sexual assault prevention interventions at colleges are typically offered to large groups of students who may not know or socialize with one another. This is a missed opportunity, adds Read, since relationship and responsibility are critical factors that encourage bystanders to take action.

“Friends are optimally positioned to prevent sexual assault. Two conditions that must be in place in order for others to take preventive action are a relationship with the potential victim and a sense of personal responsibility to her,” says Read. “Without these, helping behavior is unlikely to occur.”

Although studies show that women want to help protect their friends against sexual assault, they also report that many believe they lack the knowledge and skills to intervene, says Jennifer Livingston, PhD, co-lead investigator and associate professor in the UB School of Nursing.

“A friend-based, motivational intervention can address these barriers by cultivating the relationship and responsibility that already exist between friends, and collaboratively addressing challenges that stand in the way of helping behavior,” says Livingston.

The research, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, will lead to the development a new intervention that provides pairs of female college friends with training in communication and understanding alcohol-related risks, and strategies for recognizing and responding to threats of sexual aggression.

The program will also address the role intoxication plays in preventing intervention and will provide strategies to overcome this barrier.

Following the training, students will complete bi-weekly online assessments over the course of three months that will help researchers examine changes in helping attitudes and behaviors.

The results will lay the groundwork for future iterations of the training and other friend-based sexual assault prevention programs.

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