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Sex Ed before college can prevent student experiences of sexual assault

November 15, 2018

November 15, 2018 - Students who receive sexuality education, including refusal skills training, before college matriculation are at lower risk of experiencing sexual assault during college, according to new research published today in PLOS ONE. The latest publication from Columbia University's Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) project suggests that sexuality education during high school may have a lasting and protective effect for adolescents.

The research found that students who received formal education about how to say no to sex (refusal skills training) before age 18 were less likely to experience penetrative sexual assault in college. Students who received refusal skills training also received other forms of sexual education, including instruction about methods of birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Students who received abstinence-only instruction did not show significantly reduced experiences of campus sexual assault.

"We need to start sexuality education earlier," said John Santelli, MD, the article's lead author, a pediatrician and professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. "It's time for a life-course approach to sexual assault prevention, which means teaching young people - before they get to college - about healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships, how to say no to unwanted sex, and how to say yes to wanted sexual relationships."

The findings draw on a confidential survey of 1671 students from Columbia University and Barnard College conducted in the spring of 2016 and on in-depth interviews with 151 undergraduate students conducted from September 2015 to January 2017.

The authors found that multiple social and personal factors experienced prior to college were associated with students' experience of penetrative sexual assault (vaginal, oral, or anal) during college. These factors include unwanted sexual contact before college (for women); adverse child experiences such as physical abuse; 'hooking up' in high school; or initiation of sex and alcohol or drug use before age 18.

Ethnographic interviews highlighted the heterogeneity of students' sex education experiences. Many described sexuality education that was awkward, incomplete, or provided little information about sexual consent or sexual assault.

The research also found that students who were born outside of the United States and students whose mothers had lived only part of their lives or never lived in the U.S. had fewer experiences of penetrative sexual assault in college. Religious participation in high school did not prevent sexual assault overall, but a higher frequency of religious participation showed a borderline statistically significant protective association.

"The protective impact of refusal skills-based sexuality education, along with previous research showing that a substantial proportion of students have experienced assault before entering college, underlines the importance of complementing campus-based prevention efforts with earlier refusal skills training," said Santelli.
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Co-authors include: Stephanie A. Grilo, Tse-Hwei Choo, Gloria Diaz, Kate Walsh, Melanie Wall, Jennifer S. Hirsch, Patrick Wilson, Louisa Gilbert, Shamus Khan, and Claude A. Mellins

The study was funded by Columbia University with support by the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health  

Founded in 1922, the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Columbia Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 450 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,300 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing a variety of master's and doctoral degree programs. The Columbia Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers, including ICAP and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit http://www.mailman.columbia.edu.  

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

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