Programs to Prevent Sexual Violence Show No Evidence of Curbing Assaults

Sexual violence prevention programs effectively change ideas and beliefs that underscore assaults, but show no evidence of reducing their actual occurrence, a new comprehensive analysis shows.

The findings are published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Researchers led by behavioral scientist Roni Porat of Hebrew University challenge the assumption that changing people’s thoughts about sexual violence will change their actual behavior. They call on scientists to study more behavior-centered approaches to reducing sexual assaults.

“As a field, psychology has long known that what we think and feel and want —that is our beliefs and attitudes and intentions — do not always (or even reliably) determine what we do,” Porat and her colleagues told APS in an email. “Unfortunately, we found that most studies of these prevention programs stopped after measuring people’s attitudes. Once you have changed how someone thinks or feels about sexual violence, you still don’t know if you’ve changed how likely they are to act sexually violent or act to prevent sexual violence.”

Porat’s coauthors include APS Fellow Betsy Levy Paluck of Princeton University, social psychologist Ana Gantman of Brooklyn College (CUNY), and researchers Seth Ariel Green of Princeton and John-Henry Pezzuto of University of California, San Diego.

The researchers gathered data from 331 scientific evaluations of sexual-violence prevention interventions. The studies — conducted by psychologists, sociologists, economists, criminologists, and medical and public health scholars — spanned more than three decades. The evaluations involved programs conducted in various settings, including college campuses, high schools and middle schools, and workplaces. Nearly 90% of those studies were conducted in the United States, with the rest occurring in Canada, Europe, Israel, and Africa. About 67% of the studies involved interventions targeting both men and women. Nearly every program studied centered on what people believe about sexual violence, including what constitutes sexual violence and what they can do to stop it.

“For example, rape myths, like ‘some women say no when they mean yes,’ are a very frequent target of intervention,” the authors wrote.

The researchers examined studies on programs that educate men on the gravity of sexual violence, and adolescents about dating violence and relationship skills. They also noted a rise over the years in programs designed to encourage bystanders to stop acts of sexual violence (e.g., speaking against sexist or violent language, walking an intoxicated friend home).

Fewer than half the studies analyzed included measures of behavior following the interventions. Many of those studies involved asking participants about sexual behaviors or bystander behaviors.

Although the analysis showed that intervention programs helped increased knowledge about sexual violence and empathy and support for victims, none led to meaningful changes in rates of sexual assaults.

Measuring rates of sexual assaults is inherently challenging, Porat and colleagues noted. Assaults often happen in private spaces with no witnesses, and many are never reported. Additionally, scientists can’t ethically observe sexual aggression without intervening to stop it.

“Instead, researchers mostly rely on self-report,” the authors told APS. “There are differences in how people understand their own experiences with sexual violence, including whether or not they label what happened as violence, which means they might not report it when asked directly.”

The authors suggest more research evaluating the impact of geographic or environmental measures, such as the creation of communal spaces that make it difficult for perpetrators to victimize someone.

“We hope to spark creativity,” Porat and colleagues said, “to get people thinking beyond approaches that seek only to change what is in people’s heads and hope that changed behavior will follow.”

In a commentary accompanying the report, Elise C. Lopez and Mary Koss, University of Arizona scholars who study sexual violence and its prevention, implore researchers, educators, and public policymakers to reevaluate the basic tenets that underscore existing prevention programs. They also suggest K-12 education prevention programs to include practical behavioral skills for having consensual sex.

Progress will be stifled,” they argue, “until public policy, public opinion, and funding mechanisms catch up to a shift in thinking about the fundamental assumptions of effective prevention.”


Porat, R., Gantman, A., Green, S.A., Pezzuto, J., Levy Paluck, E. (2024). Preventing sexual violence: A behavioral problem without a behaviorally informed solution. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 25(1), 4–29.

Lopez, E. C., & Koss, M. P. (2024). Comment on Porat et al. (2024): Preventing sexual violence: A behavioral problem without a behaviorally informed solution”. Psychological Science in the Public Interest25(1), 1-3.

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