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Sexual aggression in UK higher education – a treatment needs analysis of male student perpetrators

This project will focus on the treatment requirements of male student perpetrators of sexual assault. 

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Samuel T. Hales
Police region
South East
Collaboration and partnership

Professor Theresa A. Gannon.

Level of research
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

Compared to national averages, the incident rate of male-perpetrated sexual assault is alarmingly high on university campuses (Fedina, Holmes, & Backes, 2018; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987). Each year in the UK alone, it is estimated that 25% of female students are sexually assaulted at university, whilst a further seven percent are victims of rape or attempted rape (National Union of Students [NUS], 2011).

Most of this offending occurs between students and is perpetrated by males against females (Berkowitz, 1992; Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000). These offences pose a significant threat to the safety of female students, most of whom begin university having had few sexual experiences (Higgins, Mullinax, Trussell, Davidson Sr., & Moore, 2011).

Despite the high victimization rates for campus sexual assault, there remains a notable dearth of psychological research assessing the treatment needs of sexually aggressive male university students. As a result, there have been no established interventions in either the UK or US designed specifically to help lower sexual offence rates amongst this population.

This is surprising given the wealth of knowledge available on the characteristics of incarcerated sexual offenders (Gannon & Ward, 2017; Thornton, Beech, & Marshall, 2004) and the empirically-based treatment programmes available for them worldwide (Olver & Wong, 2013).

The current project will empirically inform this research gap in the literature by examining the specific treatment needs of sexually aggressive male students, and developing, implementing, and evaluating a specialised self-help intervention designed to lower their proclivity towards sexual offending. The public and practical value of this research is shown by the high levels of public interest in sexual assault research, which has proliferated in recent years through grassroots campaigns such as the #MeToo movement.

Specifically, there are four aims of this project.

  1. To quantitatively assess the treatment needs of sexually aggressive male students within one university.
  2. To directly compare the treatment needs of sexually aggressive male students across universities.
  3. To explore whether there are subtypes of sexually aggressive male student.
  4. To develop, implement and evaluate the efficacy of a self-help intervention for sexually aggressive male students, informed by the results of my treatment needs analysis.

Research methodology

This project will comprise at least three novel empirical studies to investigate the above aims. Participants in these studies will be heterosexual male university students who self-report a history of sexual aggression on the Sexual Experiences Survey: Perpetration (short-form; Koss and others, 2007).

Participants will be recruited via voluntary sampling techniques from various sources and will be reimbursed for their time. Specific participant numbers across all studies will be determined using a-priori power analyses.

Study one

Study one will assess the treatment needs of sexually aggressive male students at the lead researcher's university, using a battery of psychological measures administered online. These measures will comprise established self-report instruments that assess various trait behaviours pertinent to sexual offending, including a measure of impression management.

Data will be analysed using hierarchical logistic regression, in which battery scores will be entered as predictors and sexual aggression perpetration will act as the criterion variable. Measures that contribute highly to the regression model will be taken as highlighting treatment needs for sexually aggressive participants.

Study two

Study two will be in two parts. Part one will be a direct replication of study one and will allow me to reproduce any significant effects. Part two will then compare these results to those gathered from participants at other UK universities who have also completed the battery, to assess the generalizability of the identified treatment needs.

Data will also be used to establish whether there are specific subtypes of sexually aggressive male student who possess unique treatment needs. This will be done using a hierarchical cluster analysis, which will identify any homogenous groups of participants similar on a given base-trait.

Study three

Lastly, study three will design, implement, and evaluate an evidence-based self-help intervention to lower male students’ sexual aggression. Such interventions are remarkably effective in helping individuals to develop coping strategies to combat unhelpful cognitions (van‘t Hof, Cuijpers, & Stein, 2009) and, when used in the treatment of undesirable clinical and forensic behaviours, generate consistent positive outcomes with student populations (Davies, 2016; Day, McGrath, & Wojtowicz, 2013). Though they have not been used in this context, the proven high efficacy of self-help interventions suggests that they could provide a viable means by which to help reduce sexual aggression.

Specifically, the intervention used in this study will comprise an online self-led course that guides participants through a series of 15 to 30-minute activities. These will be grounded in the principles of CBT – the most widely used evidence-based psychotherapy (Hofmann, Asnaani, Vonk, Sawyer, & Fang, 2012) – and will be tailored to participants’ treatment needs.

Participants will be randomly allocated to either an Experimental or Control group. The former will be granted access to the intervention and will have six to nine weeks to complete all activities, whilst the latter will be granted access at the end of the study (if positive results are found).

A 3 (Time) x 2 (Group) intention-to-treat ANOVA will be used to compare participants’ sexual aggression ratings – along with other relevant indices – before, during, and after completion of the intervention. Any significant interactions will be explored with simple effects tests and any missing data replaced using the baseline-observation-carried-forward method. Confidence intervals will be used to assess clinical significance.

Interim reports or publications

Following each of the three empirical studies, a research report will be written for academic publication that outlines the findings of that study and any future research directions. Research posters will also be produced and displayed at relevant academic conferences to highlight any key and/or interim findings.

Literature reviews will be produced alongside the three empirical studies to describe in greater depth the current base of psychological research available on sexual aggression in higher education. This will include a synthesis of climate surveys that have assessed the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses, as well as reviews of self-help interventions as used to treat clinical and forensic behaviours in students.

Any reports or publications will be available from the lead researcher at [email protected].

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