Women who have been told for years to act calm and cool and try to talk their way out of a rape situation, appear to have been given the wrong advice, according to Dr. Mary Lystad, chief of the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape, which is part of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Two new studies funded by the center found that women who resisted an attacker were more likely to escape rape, and the more strongly they resisted, the more likely they were to get away, she said.
Those who were passive, cried, tried to talk their way out, play on the attacker's sympathy or make themselves look less appealing were more likely to be raped, Lystad said.
"There is a myth that resistance would increase a woman's risk of being injured. But that does not appear to be the case at all," she said.
A woman who stands up for herself has a better chance of successfully avoiding sexual assault, she said.
The studies showed that women who used an array of physical and psychological resistance such as screaming, hitting, biting, kicking and attempting to flee were more successful in avoiding rape.
"The thing not to do is act utterly passive. A woman who behaves as if she is weak and defenseless appears to increase her risk of rape," Lystad said.
The studies were conducted by Dr. Pauline Bart of the University of Illinois Medical Center and Dr. Jennie McIntyre of the Bureau of Social Science Research Inc., Washington.
Bart studied 94 women from the Chicago area who had been attacked; 51 of them had escaped. McIntyre analyzed 220 rape attempts, of which 92 were successful and 128 failed.
Both researchers reported resistance did not in itself lead to an increased rate of serious injury. Instead, women who were the most aggressive in their resistance and who used the most methods of resistance had the greatest chance of escaping.
While resistance increased the risk of minor injuries, such as black eyes and bruises, the most docile and compliant women ran the biggest danger of bodily harm, especially if they agreed to go with an assailant to an isolated location.
Whether or not an assailant had a weapon was a minimal factor in determining the final outcome of the rape attempt, the investigators found.
But the location of the rape attempt was significant, they reported. Women attacked in a home, car or other confined space were more likely to be raped than those attacked in the open where they could scream for help or run.
Women most successful in escaping sexual assault were taller and heavier, played contact sports in childhood, engaged in sports regularly and never married, according to Bart.
Rather than a woman's size or strength being a deterrent, it's the woman who grows up being more assertive and confident who is better able to avoid rape, she said.
A free pamphlet on "How to Protect Yourself Against Sexual Assault" can be obtained from the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape, Room 15-99 Parkland Building, 5600 Fisher Lane, Rockville, Md., 20857.