New literature review warns that current sexual assault interventions might actually increase offending among high-risk men

GettyImages-178019463.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Psychology can help people one person at a time, but it also holds the promise of changing society at a mass scale, through campaigns to change attitudes and behaviour. One such endeavour is the development of programmes to reduce the rates of sexual assault of women on university campuses. But in a literature review in Aggression and Violent Behavior, researchers from the University of California make the case that such programmes may not just be ineffective, but counterproductive.

In 2013 the US passed its Violence Against Women Act; in response most US university campuses launched programmes that aimed to reduce sexual assault by raising awareness, changing attitudes and behaviours and encouraging bystanders to take a stand. But there has been little systematic evaluation of these programmes, and the evidence for any benefits is thus far thin. Of the 140 college-based behaviour change programmes studied by the Center for Disease Control, it recommended only three on the balance of evidence; all three focused on changing bystander action and two of the three merely showed “promise of effectiveness”. Other reviews have produced slightly more positive conclusions but often with weak effects or without evidence of actual behaviour change.

Screenshot 2018-06-19 09.34.50.png“Newish interventions have a thin evidence base, more work needed” is not a clamouring call for alarm, but based on their review of the field, Neil Malamuth and his team suspect there may be something worse at play: a boomerang effect. 

It’s certainly become clear that well-meaning interventions in other contexts can have the opposite effect to that intended; we’ve previously covered instances of backfiring interventions that aimed to reduce prejudice, correct false beliefs on vaccine, or encourage employees to behave better in the workplace. 

The reason boomerang effects are such a concern in the domain of sexual assault is that most interventions are being designed and evaluated around a broad target group – men – rather than looking at effects on the most high-risk individuals. Yet we know from previous evidence that the people most likely to respond contrarily are those most disposed to the problem behaviour in the first place. For instance, an intervention intended to reduce acceptance of violent video games in students was effective for many participants, but post-intervention, those who had been classified as living a delinquent lifestyle became more enthusiastic about playing the games. Another study demonstrated that an anti-violence campaign was effective in increasing opposition to violence in people low in trait aggression, but those who were highly aggressive became more enthusiastic about violence.

Boomerang effects seem to happen when participants experience reactance: anger stemming from the sense that a mode of life or thinking is threatened combined with “motivated reasoning” – like finding reasons to doubt the source of the message. In the midst of reactance, the person sees themselves as defiantly resisting preachy attempts to deny them their entitlement. 

Is reactance likely to happen with the men most likely to commit sexual assault? Well, consider this profile of high-risk individuals: they tend to have hostility towards women, experience sexual arousal when physical force is involved, and have an impersonal sexual orientation (intimacy is not a prerequisite for what they seek in sex). As well as these sex-related factors, they tend to be anti-social, highly entitled and narcissistic. Evidence suggests these individuals are less likely to respond to cues of sexual disinterest, feeling that women are really into them or will be eventually, and they react more aggressively to interpersonal rejection. This seems a potent recipe for reactance. 

Screenshot 2018-06-19 09.31.14.pngThere isn’t much evidence from existing anti-sexual assault programmes on specifically how these high-risk individuals respond, but smaller-scale experimental work reveals troubling signs. Messages promoting gender equality and greater consideration for women lead to lower aggressive tendencies for men already low in sexist attitudes, but more aggression among those who held more sexist attitudes from the start. A video intended to reduce acceptance of rape myths and increase victim empathy worked for men who had no history of sexually aggressive behaviour, but the high-risk men showed a boomerang effect. On the other hand, some experimental studies have shown some intervention content can have the desired effect on high-risk individuals, e.g. improving victim empathy. But if you hit the target on some occasions, and shoot yourself in the foot on others, you would want to take a good look at your technique before rolling it out nationwide. 

The danger is that interventions could produce impressive-seeming results simply because the low-risk majority perceive sexual assault as even more deplorable than they already did – while the (roughly 30 per cent) of higher-risk men become even more intent on their agenda. Of course, such interventions may prevent certain sexual assaults – for example, through limiting predation opportunities through galvanising bystanders to act. But surely we should be working to maximise impact on those likely to commit the bulk of the assaults, rather than fire up their motivation still further.

Sexual assault interventions may be doing more harm than good with high-risk males

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

5 thoughts on “New literature review warns that current sexual assault interventions might actually increase offending among high-risk men”

  1. Such strategies ,innovative/refreshing and unique as they might appear,will never work.The only 2 strategies that can work against–at least to a large extent-are (1) compulsory martial arts training to girls right from the school age. Krav Maga is easier to learn.This won’t make women Supergirls but there is a beginning.At least,marital rapes might decline.Most of respect is fear.Women must learn to instill fear in possible predators.And criminally inclined will never change with gender-this and gender-that education.There was a report in DailyMail about last year where a 11 year old boy had raped his class mate.
    (2) Massive policewomen recruitment,professional training,and deployment 24×365— everywhere.They also must carry revolvers.Professional training also should involve training them against unnecessary aggression leading to trigger happy persons.Policemen have also molested and raped.Hence,policewomen.
    Other stupid ideas are No means No.–A rascal never listens to that and is there any witness to suggest that the lady has indeed said No?Second,parents should teach boys to respect women.How many boys confirm to that once outside homes?

    Also,how many men rape as against how many men live in a city/town?Despite available opportunities,most don’t molest or rape or even exhibit atrocious attitudes towards women.


    1. Your suggestion of a balance between male and female officers is good (although the way you’ve phrased is as if you’d prefer most officers to be female). However the idea of training women at a young age to be violent and giving revolvers out is preposterous. Fear can actually drive a person to crime, ala the boomerang effect mentioned in the article. I suggest you study forensic psychology and not the Daily Mail.


  2. Maybe geneticists can weed the psychopathy out of humanity? It doesn’t just “rape”. It commits incest, it tortures, it ruins lives and does so many other barbaric things. The human race has no hope of actual “whole of humanity” evolution as long as it has that archaic monkey on it’s back known as psychopathy. Until then it will remain business as usual and people can keep claiming “most” do not feed and serve their evil and selfish side. Yeah, I’m sure the trillions+ victims over the centuries would (HA) agree to that. Western culture in and of itself is the definition of Mass Psychopathy. And all anyone can do is pay lip service to that. I’m routing for the Geneticists! Even if it takes them another 100,000 years to do it.


    1. Psychopathy is rare in general, but also not very common in sexual assaults, so even if we ‘weed out’ psychopathy there will still be plenty of assaults.


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