ATHENS, Ohio (Oct. 20, 2006) -- As a psychology graduate student at Kent State University, Christine Gidycz assisted one of the first studies ever conducted to assess the occurrence of sexual assault on college campuses. The study, led by Mary P. Koss in the late '80s, offered the first scientific data on acquaintance rape or "hidden rape," as Koss put it, and provided some of the most widely quoted statistics on sexual assault.
Through their research, Koss and her colleagues discovered the endemic scope of sexual assaults on college campuses across the country. And Gidycz discovered her professional passion: sexual assault prevention and risk reduction.
Gidycz has since developed The Ohio University Sexual Assault Risk Reduction Program. She has also worked with colleagues to develop a sexual assault prevention program for men. Within the framework of a statewide task force, Gidycz helps to address the needs of sexual assault survivors in Ohio.
In all her efforts, one of her central goals remains debunking the popular myths surrounding rape. "A lot of people tend to think of rape as: this guy jumps out of the bushes, drags a woman into a dark alley and rapes her," Gidycz said last week during her lecture. "Our data show that sexual assault is far more likely to occur between acquaintances."
In Koss' seminal 1987 survey, 84 percent of those women who experienced an assault knew their offender. In more recent years, that figure has grown to more than 90 percent, as indicated in studies by Gidycz and her colleagues.
In the dark
Although acquaintance rape is less "hidden" now than it was before the work of Koss and Gidycz, many women have difficulty acknowledging the crime as such.
On the sexual experiences survey that Gidycz and her colleagues use, the word rape never appears. Still, some questions describe the legal definition of rape. Gidycz compares responses to those questions with responses to questions in a subsequent survey that do contain the word rape. She recently found that only about 25 percent of acquaintance rape victims acknowledge the crime as such. Of those who did acknowledge the crime on the survey, about 30 percent told absolutely no one about the incident, and less than one percent reported the crime to the police.
"The most important conclusion we can draw from this is that acquaintance rape is a crime where offenders go unpunished and victims suffer in silence," Gidycz said.
Gidycz also concludes that the symptomology suffered by acquaintance rape victims – such as elevated levels of anxiety and/or depression, increased suicidal thoughts and difficulties in sexual functioning – is similar to that of stranger rape victims. However, acquaintance rape victims are less likely to seek services.
"What's more, acquaintance rape victims may be affected in unique ways," Gidycz said. "When a woman is assaulted by someone close to her, perhaps a major sense of support in her life has just been lost. She may feel that people cannot be trusted anymore."
To prevent sexual assault and provide support for victims, Gidycz, her colleagues and her students work together to continue these studies, and to provide education, self-defense skills and awareness about acquaintance assault to women through the Ohio University Sexual Assault Risk Reduction Program. She has also worked with a national expert on men's programming, Alan Berkowitz to bring his men's sexual assault prevention program to Ohio University.
The aims of Gidycz's program for women include reducing the risk of sexual assault victimization, increasing self-protective behaviors and providing skills to assertively communicate sexual intents. The program teaches a wide variety of self-defense skills, from how women carry themselves and respond to verbal aggression to physical defense strategies.
"We want women to be more educated and more prepared," Gidycz said. According to Gidycz, this could include planning ahead for a night out in terms of social support and transportation, watching drinks closely and learning how to identify possible threats.
Gidycz recently obtained a three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate her women's risk reduction program and Berkowitz's men's prevention program in the residence halls at Ohio University. Gidycz will evaluate the program in six residence halls this year. All six halls will be surveyed, but only three will participate in the programs. To assess whether these programs are effective in decreasing the problem of sexual violence on campus, Gidycz will compare variables, such as the rates of sexual victimization and perpetration, for participants who received the interventions and those who did not. Next year, additional first-year residence halls will be part of the investigation.
Based on previous studies, Gidycz has found that those women who participated in the risk reduction program exhibited more self-protective behaviors, less self-blame and greater perpetrator blame, increased knowledge about sexual assault and decreased rates of both victimization and re-victimization compared to women who did not participate in the program.
Although Gidycz's efforts concentrate on women as victims and men as perpetrators, she acknowledges that men can be victims. Still, she affirms that she and her colleagues focus on the far more pervasive and urgent crisis.
Ryan Franz, a first-year psychology major, agrees with Gidycz's approach. "The vast majority of (sexual assault) cases occur with a male as the perpetrator and a woman as the victim, so I think that's where we need to address the problem," Franz said. "More males should be aware of what affects sexual violence toward women."
Gidycz has also determined separate programming for men and women to be more effective than combined programming. "If you put men and women in the same room, the men tend to get quiet, and often, the women get angry. Then the men get even more defensive," Gidycz says. "To get through to someone, you want them to be open, not defensive. Besides, during all-male discussions you are more likely to confront any negative or cynical attitudes, simply because they're more likely to talk about them."
Gidycz and her colleagues hope to increase risk reduction techniques among women and to educate them about the after-effects of rape and victim assistance resources. Meanwhile, the men's program is aimed at reducing sexually aggressive behavior, educating the male public about sexual assault issues and decreasing the likelihood of inappropriate bystander behavior (when a man witnesses inappropriate behavior in his peer group and does nothing to intervene or challenge the behavior).
Working for change
Gidycz's commitment to confronting the problem of sexual assault inspires campus and state-wide programming, and calls her students to action. "My general interest in assault prevention is based on the knowledge that sexual violence is such an endemic problem; it affects people we care about," said Katie Edwards, a second-year graduate student in clinical psychology.
Edwards, one of Gidycz's eight graduate student collaborators, reports that the Ohio University Sexual Assault Reduction Program is perceived favorably by residence hall participants.
In addition to the efforts made by faculty, students and the Department of Residence Life (under director Judy Piercy), this program represents a collaboration of Counseling and Psychological Services (under director Jeanne Heaton); Health Education and Wellness (under director Char Kopchick); Alan Berkowitz, who developed the men's program; and Cheryl Cesta, who teaches self-defense.
"In order to confront sexual assault, we all have to work together to give students a consistent message for prevention," Gidycz said, "to provide the right services to victims and to encourage them to seek those out."