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Q&A: David Lisak, Ph.D., expert on sexual assault prevention education

University of Massachusetts professor David Lisak is a clinical psychologist who studies interpersonal violence.Prior to the first session of Lisak's three-part lecture on sexual assault at Princeton, The Daily Princetonian spoke with him on Princeton’s sexual assault statistics in relation to nationwide statistics.

The Daily Princetonian: To put this into context at Princeton, more than 15 percent of female undergraduates have reported experiencing non-consensual vaginal penetration during their time at the University, according to an unpublished survey. Does this 15 percent figure relate to other college campuses or national trends?


David Lisak: I have to be a little bit careful because it depends very much on what kind of questions were asked, what the time frame was, all those kinds of things which can really affect numbers a little bit this way, a little bit that way. But, you know, generally speaking, yes, that sounds like it's certainly somewhere in the spectrum of what most colleges experience.

DP: So, it's not an uncommon figure?

DL: Oh, no, not at all.

DP: Relating to the survey itself, the statistics are based on a self-reported sexual experience survey. Are self-reported surveys reliable?

DL: We’ve been using that methodology for close to 30 years now. Various researchers have done checks on it: so,by getting data from a survey like that and then interviewing a sample of respondents in face-to-face interviews to make sure, for example, "did they understand the questions?" When you get more information behind the experiences that lie behind their answers, "were they clearly understanding those questions, and were those questions eliciting accurate responses?" And basically what we find is "yes," with the caveat that, in general, well-done face-to-face interviews actually tend to yield higher rates.

DP: Really? One would think that a respondent who was face-to-face with someone would perhaps play things down.


DL: Well, that's where I said well-done. That's one of the wonderful mysteries of social science research — that it's not mechanical, and it's not test tubes. A lot relies on the quality of the interview. In the other work I do with a lot of forensic evaluations, basically people bring me in to get disclosures from people of things they have not been willing to talk about for, sometimes, over decades. So the same thing applies. In these kinds of very human interactions, fortunately or unfortunately, a lot depends on those interactions, so it can be actually higher than our big surveys tell us.

DP: There is a program on campus called “Unless There’s Consent” that's supposed to educate the student body about sexual assault. Are those programs becoming more common at colleges, and are they having any effect on the rate of sexual assault on college campuses?

DL: Well, I’m not familiar with the details of that program here. There are on virtually every college campus now various kinds of rape prevention education programs. Generally speaking, those are great things. What we don’t have yet, on any college campus, is the kind of comprehensive long-term rape prevention strategy implemented from the top, sort of backed by the leadership of the university, that really seeks to not only prevent sexual assault but also to address the cultural elements on campus.

DP: Can you elaborate on what would make such a program comprehensive?

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DL: Sure. [For example,] I have a slide from the U.S. Army. The military has all kinds of problems, as everyone knows, with sexual assault. But what this slide is — it's fairly old now; it's several years old — is a five-year plan, multi-demensional. In fact, it's one of the worst PowerPoint slides ever developed because you can’t literally take it in. It is an effort to look ahead five years across many, many dimensions and domains and put into place all kinds of programs, evaluate those programs, change those programs according to the evaluations and keep moving forward.

DP: So, it's progressively studying results? Is that what makes it effective?

DL: Yes, and it's backed by the leadership. The problem we have on college campuses is that somebody will get a grant and then try some innovative program, which is wonderful, but then it relies on funding from the federal government for two years. There’s no permanent source of funding; there’s no permanent or long-term commitment. And that’s what we need to start seeing, because that’s the only way we are really going to develop effective prevention education programs.