Women at three Canadian universities who were taught tactics to prevent sexual assaults were less likely to be raped than peers who received standard brochures, say researchers who call it a short-term solution to a cultural problem.

In Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, psychologist Charlene Senn from the University of Windsor in Ontario and her team describe the effectiveness of the program in recognizing danger and resisting pressure through forceful physical and verbal resistance.

The research, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, included 451 women at the universities of Waterloo and Guelph in Ontario, and the University of Calgary, who were randomly offered the resistance training, and 442 women in the control group who received brochures like the ones commonly given out on campuses.

Heidi Fischer

Heidi Fischer says the tools and scenarios she was taught at the University of Guelph's sexual assistance resistance program reflected the challenges women face every day. (Melanie Glanz/CBC)

After one year, there were 23 completed rapes in the resistance group and 42 among those who received brochures.

"What the results show is that as few as 22 women need to receive the workshop in order for one completed rape to be averted," Senn said.

"What the program does is it help orients women to the real danger cues in situations and in men's behaviour so that they can more quickly detect risk, helps them get over the emotional obstacles to acknowledging there's danger coming from someone you know and perhaps like and then it gives them the self-defence tools they would actually use against an acquaintance."

Previous research suggests that one in four women will experience rape or attempted rape while attending university, with the risk greatest during the first year. Young women are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted by male acquaintances.

While we wait for effective programs for men and cultural shifts in attitudes to stamp out the violence, Senn said the tools are a practical way for women to protect themselves.

Helpful tips

Guelph graduate and participant Heidi Fischer, 25, of Toronto said that after the 12-hour course, she learned to avoid risky situations, such as when a few young men recently offered to drive her and her friends to an after-party.

"You've had a few drinks, you're like 'OK, why not save some cab fare?' But I kind of just thought back to myself, and there's two ways that this can kind of go," Fischer said.

Tasha Longtin

Tasha Longtin says she learned about victim blaming, date rape and consent in the workshop. (Ashley Harrison)

"I'm in a car with people that I don't know. My reaction times are slowed. My ability to think clearly is clouded a little bit, and I don't know what kind of people these are."

Tasha Longtin, 24, of Guelph praised how the program encourages women to display zero tolerance for any unwanted attention. She's been grabbed in a bar, where a slap fended the man off. 

"The less tolerance we have for the dismissal of sexual assault and victim-blaming is one step closer to protecting the victims and ending the careless attitude toward rape culture that many people still currently maintain," Longtin, an English major, said in an email.

Kathleen Basile of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's violence prevention in Atlanta wrote a journal commentary published with the study.

Basile applauded the study's rigorous design and execution, but noted its main weakness is placing the onus on potential victims, possibly obscuring the responsibility of perpetrators and others.

Senn's approach "can be part of comprehensive multi-level approach, including a focus on younger ages and potential perpetrators, to address this public health crisis," Basile concluded.

Senn said she's received emails from parents who want their daughters to receive the resistance program at a younger  age. When Senn offered it to public high schools in Windsor, she was turned down.

University of Arizona psychologist Mary Koss, who was not involved in the study, developed an online survey to evaluate the training that is widely used in the research field.

"Universities should move right away to figure out how they can implement a program like this," she said. "We don't have to look at women as being so helpless and vulnerable. There are tools to empower women that can dramatically cut their risk of rape."

With files from CBC's Christine Birak and The Associated Press