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Research on Sexual Assault Intervention Strategies

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Each year the Erikson Institute for Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center hosts a College Counseling Center Conference. The topic for the 2015 conference was: Sexual Assault in the College Setting: Integrating the Complex Roles of Psychotherapists, Advocacy and Prevention Specialists, Administration and Legal Counsel. 

In this three-part series, we will present excerpts from a longer interview with Psychology Fellow, Kate Gallagher, PhD, a member of the Riggs clinical staff who has researched and published on issues related to sexual assault. At the end of the series, we will make the interview, in its entirety, available in our Resource Center.

Part 3: Research on Sexual Assault Intervention Strategies 

You gave a presentation at the College Counseling Center Conference this year. Can you talk briefly about your research and what you presented? 

Kate Gallagher, PhD, Fellow in Psychology at the Austen Riggs CenterMy research has focused on identifying individual and situational intervention strategies to decrease violence and discrimination toward vulnerable populations.  In particular, I have focused a great deal of my work on intervention strategies for violence against women.  Much of my work has examined clinically-relevant, modifiable determinants (e.g., mindfulness, locus of control, alcohol consumption) that may mitigate assaultive behavior. The collective results of this research has shed light on the importance of identifying individual risk factors (e.g., a hegemonic masculinity and associative stressors) and building on evidenced-based mechanisms (e.g., attention-allocation during acute alcohol intoxication) to construct new models for intervention programming.  As one of my colleagues once said “someday someone will use this information and it will make life better.”  It has always been my hope that this will be the case.

As a Fellow in Psychology at The Austen Riggs Center, I attended this conference representing many roles: I am a researcher, a therapist, a former rape crisis advocate, a woman, and a person who would like to be able to send my children safely to college one day.  Representing all of these roles, I gave a talk that reviewed the wealth of existing data on the relation between alcohol and sexual assault on college campuses.  In addition, I discussed the current lack of evidenced-based intervention programming for sexual assault.   Whereas the research has been clear that men are most likely to be the perpetrators of sexual assault, intervention programming has focused primarily on women.  This is complicated for many reasons.  Foremost, this approach has been found to be highly ineffective and ultimately forces women to be in charge of preventing their own assaults.  Moreover, Mary Koss’s research (Koss, 2011) debunked the myth that most sexual assaults are committed by crazed strangers and highlighted the prevalence of acquaintance rape.   Essentially this means that a woman is significantly more likely to be assaulted by her male friend, neighbor, classmate, boyfriend, or even her husband.  It is very unlikely that a woman will be blitz attacked by a stranger (Abbey, 2011), which renders much of the current intervention strategies for sexual assault (e.g., rape whistles) moot.

As noted, existing interventions for sexual assault on college campuses have been deemed ineffective (Lonsway, 2011).  In response, the field has moved toward developing and testing bystander interventions for sexual assault, with some initial success (Gidycz, Orchowski, & Edwards, 2011).  These interventions often emphasize a “peer as first responder” approach (Sharkin, Plageman, & Mangold, 2003), with a focus on informal social control, modifying norms regarding sexual violence, and examining individuals’ reasons for and against intervening. Furthermore, these interventions can be flexibly tailored to target multiple levels of the social ecology (e.g., individual level, school climate) (Brown, Banyard, and Moynihan, 2014; Gidycz et al., 2011), which is critical to combat such a multifaceted and pervasive problem.  Though this line of inquiry has not yet integrated the role of acute alcohol intoxication, I expect that the field will move in this direction.  

How is this work and research relevant to your work as a clinician at Riggs? 

Many of the individuals I have worked with as a therapist have experienced some form of trauma during their lives, often sexual assault.  Sexual trauma is insidious; it impacts the way a person experiences themselves and the world.   Sexual trauma has been correlated with numerous mental health conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, and suicidality.  In addition, sexual trauma has been linked with numerous physical health conditions involving multiple body systems such as the nervous, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, reproductive, musculoskeletal, immune, and endocrine systems (Black et al., 2011).  Thus, it is incredibly important that researchers, clinicians, and members of other disciplines work together to continue to understand this critical public health problem.

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