Thursday, January 18, 2018

Author Q & A with Sarah McMahon discussing “Campus Sexual Assault: Future Directions for Research”

McMahon, S., Wood, L., Cusano, J., & Macri, L .M. (2018). Campus Sexual Assault: Future Directions for Research. Sexual Abuse. iFirst.

Campus sexual assault (CSA) has received unprecedented attention over recent years, resulting in an abundance of federal guidance and mandates. In response, efforts to address and prevent CSA at Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) across the country have grown quickly, including the development and implementation of programs and policies. Because the changes on campuses have occurred at such a rapid pace, a number of gaps exist within the field of CSA research. To ensure that changes on IHE are evidence-based, there is a need to review the existing research available and the inquiry still needed based on key areas outlined in federal guidance, the expressed needs of campus community members, survivors, and students who commit sexual offenses on college campuses. The purpose of this review is to summarize the empirical research related to CSA gained from the past two decades and identify areas in which further work is needed, specifically related to key areas identified in recent guidance provided to IHE. This article concludes with guidance for research moving forward to help strengthen response and prevention efforts.

Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came?

There are a few reasons that motivated this article. First, while the topic of Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) is not new, the attention provided to the issue has been elevated in recent years. This is due to a number of factors, including student activism as well as federal mandates and guidance.  The Obama-Biden Administration identified campus sexual assault as a priority issue, and convened a task force which issued a report in 2014 that has served as a primary document for providing guidance.  Although many institutions of higher education have embraced the call to action to better address CSA, the research in terms of best practices lags. 

Second, the timing in our culture is ripe to further address CSA. The current time period provides a unique window where universities and colleges are finally addressing CSA and there is accountability demanded by students, families, and the public. Clearly, the #MeToo movement continues to shine a light on the issue of sexual violence and it appears to be a “watershed moment”. This presents an opportunity for researchers to engage in work to help develop the evidence-base for the implementation of practices, programs and policies that will be meaningful and impactful. 

In addition, it is clear that one of the major gaps in the field relates to research on students who sexually offend. There currently lacks information about the predictors of offending within this group, their trajectories, and best practices for intervention and prevention efforts.  The discussion about these gaps at the ATSA conference in 2016 and learning from others in the field was also a motivation for writing this article, as there is clearly a need for those who work with individuals that commit sexual offenses to contribute to our body of evidence on CSA.

What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?

The most challenging part of the process was trying to funnel the massive scope of the issue into a manageable and organized manuscript.  The field of sexual violence prevention is wide and complex, and research in this area is relatively new so there are numerous gaps that need to be addressed.  We used the guidance provided in the Obama Administration’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault as our organizing structure.  They addressed a number of different policies, practices, and programs that need to be implemented at institutions of higher education, yet the field has not caught up with having solid evaluation to help inform these efforts. I was also fortunate to work with an excellent team of researchers to help review the literature from the field as our foundation.

What do you believe to be the main things that you have learnt about campus sexual assault?

It is an exciting time for those who work in the field of CSA because of all the changes occurring, but writing this article clearly illustrated the gap between practice and research.  At this point, there is a push for institutions of higher education to move quickly to address CSA which is obviously a good thing, but research has not kept the same pace and therefore we are in real need of rigorous studies that examine a wide range of CSA policies, programs , practices and prevention efforts.

Through writing this article, I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about those that work with individuals who commit sexual offenses.  Of the many areas needing research related to CSA, figuring out how to better work with students who offend appears to be critical and severely lacking. I am hopeful, however, that those who have conducted research on sexual offenders more broadly will be interested in bridging their work onto college campuses, as their expertise is needed and would make an important contribution.

Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?

I think that good research-practitioner partnerships are invaluable.  Within the arena of CSA, the development of these partnerships seems essential.  The research needs to be informed by what is happening in real time and on the ground, and it would be best if these practices were informed by evidence.  I would encourage both researchers and practitioners to seek each other out to figure out how to collaborate to address the many issues needing attention within the field of CSA.

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