Arguments over statistics and Title IX are nothing new, but researchers rarely focus on what is effective in preventing sexual assault. Now a recent study by social scientists at Columbia University suggests an effective way to counter sexual assault on campus along with student misconduct policies and Title IX.

The Columbia study shows that learning how to say “No” to unwanted sexual advances is highly effective.  It also shows that would-be sexual partners will listen to clearly expressed rejection. 

Emphasis on refusal skills before age 18 protects young women from sexual assault, which high school students then carry forward into their college years. Teaching students “how to say no to sex” was more effective against sexual assault than other sex education before college, including instruction on birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, how to prevent HIV/AIDS, or “abstinence only” education.

Battles rage over statistics in Title IX, but studies typically focus on the number of sexual assault victims. Advocates and activists use the numbers to argue that there is or is not a “rape culture” on American campuses.

A 2007 National Institute of Justice survey (the Campus Sexual Assault Study) reported that nearly one in five (19%) college women had experienced some form of sexual assault. Other studies put the number far, far lower. The US Department of Justice Special Report on Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females reported that 6.1 college students per 1,000 experienced a sexual assault from 1997 to 2013, with the incident rate declining steadily over time. 

A 2015 survey of campus climate at the University of Connecticut reported higher numbers than the DOJ but nowhere near the often invoked “one-in-five” statistic dating from the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study. At UConn, 6.5% of students believed they had been the victims of an attempted but unsuccessful sexual assault on campus. A total of 5.5% reported being sexually assaulted. 

Title IX statisticians also skirmish over how to define sexual assault. Should studies use broad definitions? Should, for example, sexual assault encompass sexual contact that results from “verbal coercion”? No one would deny that it is sexual assault to compel someone to have sex by threatening violence, whether or not actual violence is used. But such a definition could conceivably be overinclusive. For example, “verbal coercion” might be understood to include a lie about having another boyfriend or girlfriend, or a lie about having an STD. 

Should the definitions be narrow? The DOJ study limits rape to unlawful penetration against the will of the victim. But might this exclude some incidents because some women do not want to report them to the police?

The new Columbia study sidesteps these debates and stands out for doing so. Its focus is on measuring what prevents sexual assault. It asks how young women (and their parents and their schools) may equip themselves to avoid becoming victims.

The findings are consistent programs such as No Means No Worldwide (to which Allen Law LLC makes charitable donations). No Means No teaches rape prevention to boys and girls, ages 10 to 20, in some of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods, such as the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. 

The program teaches young girls to identify risk. They are taught to say, “no,” but also to talk their way out of trouble. If “no” is not respected, however, No Means No also teaches rudimentary martial arts to back it up. To be clear, young women are not taught to be Ronda Rousey or to engage in Jean-Claude Van Damme acrobatics. The program typically teaches them to kick, run, and yell.

Importantly, No Means No is committed to statistically verifiable studies. It tests whether or not its method works. Instructing young women how to say no to unwanted sexual advances produces remarkable results. In some of the worst crime-ridden areas of the globe, No Means No has documented a 50% decrease in incidents of rape among female participants as well as a dramatic increase in the number of boys who recognize and intervene to stop sexual assault.