How friends can work together to help protect against unwanted sexual experiences in the first year of college

A new study from the University at Buffalo is helping researchers understand how women in their early college years can use friends-based strategies to help avoid unwanted sexual experiences.

Friends are protective by nature, but this study looked specifically at something called “capable guardianship” — one aspect of friendship that can be especially helpful. Capable guardianship can include having more friends present in social situations, and not consuming alcohol. These strategies might reduce the possible occurrence of nonconsensual sexual acts, ranging from unwanted touching to rape.

Sexual victimization is a widely studied phenomenon on college campuses, yet surprisingly little is known about how first-year college women navigate and respond to this risk. The study’s results are particularly significant considering that perpetrators might target women in this group for a variety of reasons that include inexperience with alcohol, and being new to many of the social settings that are common in college, according to Jennifer Read, PhD, a professor and chair of the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology.

Previous work has explored bystander intervention, which focuses on how others in the social environment might respond to and come to the aid of someone in distress. Yet, the current research shifts that perspective to focus on friends in particular, rather than others in the social environment. Read says friends are more likely to take action than other bystanders, because acting to help someone depends largely on someone’s relationship to a potential target and a perceived responsibility for that person’s well-being.

“It is enormously important that women understand that by working together they can maximize their protection and safety in these contexts,” says Read, co-author of the study led by Jessica A. Blayney, a UB doctoral student in psychology at the time that the research was conducted. “This study can take what women are doing naturally and refine this so that these strategies are being implemented more consistently and effectively.”

The findings published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly are already being applied in Read’s lab for another study involving pairs of friends.

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