Entertainment Education and Sexual Assault

TRIGGER WARNING – This blog post pertains to sexual assault.

I recently came across a news article that links back to our discussion of entertainment education. It notes that a study published in the Journal of Health Communication found that frequent viewers of Law & Order, CSI, or NCIS “are more likely to help prevent sexual assault or intervene if they have the opportunity”. The study authors document a shift in how sexual assault has been portrayed in television crime dramas. While story-lines that placed blame on the survivor were common in the late 1980s and early 1990s, more recent analyses have focused on debunking such “victim-blaming” and have included instances of bystander intervention.

The study is grounded in the integrative model of behavioural prediction, which holds that the likelihood of an individual performing a certain action is dependent upon their attitudes toward performing said behaviour, perceived norms about the behaviour, and perceived self-efficacy to carry out the behaviour. In the context of the study, the authors defined the behaviour as “taking action before or during a sexual assault or by speaking out against attitudes that support sexual violence” (Banyard et al., 2007 in Hust et al., 2012, p.107). Given that norms may vary according to setting the researchers controlled for beliefs that seemed likely to influence bystander intervention: rape myth acceptance, perception of social norms and peer expectations. A detailed explanation of how the researchers defined these variables is provided in the article. After controlling for these factors the authors found that “exposure to crime dramas was positively associated with intentions to intervene. Exposure to primetime crime dramas explained .7% more variance after considering all previous predictors” (Hust et al., 2012, p.118). Although this might not seem like much, it is important to consider that these cases differ somewhat from the case-studies of entertainment education highlighted in class. Most notably, they did not occur in the context of a planned health communication intervention and were not based on a specific methodology (cf. The Sabido Method). They raise the possibility of planned and coordinated health messaging in primetime crime dramas, which may prove more effective. Hust et al. (2012, p.119) argue that “larger effect sizes may be generated by exposure to crime dramas that have a greater focus on sexual violence” as well by the frequency with which individuals watch said programs.

This study has some obvious limitations. It only addresses sexual assaults that occur in a public or otherwise communal space. Most serious sexual assaults occur in private, where intervention by a third party is unlikely. Furthermore, the study participants were drawn from freshmen university students living in residence. This may limit the generalizability of the study’s findings to the broader population. However, the choice of sample does not seem unwise given concerns about sexual assault on university campuses.

The publication of this study is, unfortunately, timely in light of recent cases that have seen much attention in the media. The sexual assaults that took place in Steubenville and in Cole Harbour occurred at parties and communal gatherings, the very sort of contexts cited in the study. Although we must make comprehensive efforts at combatting the rape culture that enables perpetrators of sexual assault and shames survivors, the potential for entertainment education to play a role is cause for some hope.

Hust, S. J., Marett, E. G., Lei, M., Chang, H., Ren, C., McNab, A. L., & Adams, P. M. (2013). Health Promotion Messages in Entertainment Media: Crime Drama Viewership and Intentions to Intervene in a Sexual Assault Situation. Journal of Health Communication18(1), 105-123.



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