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How Young Women’s Friend Groups Help Tackle Unwanted Sexual Experiences

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Jun 30, 2022

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Alamy and Dreamstime/ Denise D'souza for The Swaddle

Unwanted sexual advances and experiences continue to be a common occurrence in the lives of young women everywhere. Many interventions aim to address the root cause — perpetrators’ behavioral attitudes towards women and entitlement towards sex borne of patriarchy. Still others have wondered what to do past the prevention stage, and have focused on bystander interventions, ones where strangers in the vicinity are trained to identify and respond harm, as a possible means of de-escalating a potentially harmful situation.

A new study, however, observed that friend-based strategies — or those that involve relying on friendships — could work much better than bystander intervention — given that friends are more likely to take responsibility for someone’s wellbeing.

“This study can take what women are doing naturally and refine this so that these strategies are being implemented more consistently and effectively,” said study author Jennifer Read, from the University of Buffalo.

The study, published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, specifically looked at women in their first years of college — a vulnerable time due to the high rates of victimization that people in this demographic often face. Read and colleagues looked at 132 first-year college women and observed that something called “capable guardianship” is at play in friend groups, which can mitigate the risk of unwanted sexual experiences.

The participants reported their most-used strategies — sticking together at a social gathering, constantly checking on each other, and leaving together were most widely reported. Capable guardianship in this context is when many friends are present together in a social situation, and some may abstain from consuming alcohol.


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Some literature on crime and victimization defines capable guardians as “those individuals whose presence or proximity discourages offenders from committing crime.” This makes friend groups with a higher proportion of women apt as capable guardians in any situation involving risks of sexual harm.

Women in their first years of college are so vulnerable to unwanted sex that there’s a colloquial term for this period in their lives: the “red zone.” “We need a dramatic cultural shift to make sure young girls of all races are safe in their homes and schools, that we have an environment where they can seek help when it’s needed, and that we have resources readily available to provide treatment when violence occurs,” Laura Hawks, lead author of a previous study on how millions of women’s first sexual experiences were rape, told Reuters.

The idea is to look at these findings as first-response measures to sexual abuse survivors that can help someone in a time of need, rather than shifting the responsibility onto survivors completely. “The other point I’ll stress is this misrepresentation that taking steps to reduce the risk of victimization somehow implies the woman is at fault. That is completely false… This research is about understanding a social context where men are known to act as perpetrators, and what women can do together to be safe,” Read added.

It goes without saying that the onus to mitigate this risk is and should not be on the women themselves. But research studying the means that women already do resort to provides a tried and tested way — female friendships and solidarities — to ensure better protection in the short term. “Parents, educators, and policymakers can encourage college women to draw on their social networks to enhance safety. Interventions could incorporate more universal strategies for responding to risk in social contexts,” the study noted.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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