Research News

Teaching friends to protect one another from sexual assault

3 pairs of female college students relaxing on steps and railings.

The new sexual assault prevention training program aims to transform friends of victims from bystanders into guardians.


Published December 6, 2018 This content is archived.

Portrait of Jennifer Read.
“Friends are optimally positioned to prevent sexual assault. ”
Jennifer Read, professor and director of clinical training
Department of Psychology

UB 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, co-lead investigator and professor and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology, 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, co-lead investigator and associate professor in the 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 development of 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.


I am excited to see you developing bystander interventions to prevent sexual assault. These types of interventions can make a huge impact. I hope the research goes well!

Sharlynn Daun-Barnett