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Whittier Professor Invents Game That Teaches Teens Self-Defense Against Rape

May 18, 1986|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Q: Under what circumstances is a woman "asking for" rape?

It was 17-year-old Niqie Ramirez's turn at the RapeSafe game, and he looked stumped.

"By the way she dresses?" he guessed. "When she flirts?"

The new board game's creator, Nancy Cowardin, could scarcely conceal her grimace.

"A woman never asks to be raped," she instructed Ramirez. "No one wants to be hurt."

Difficult Question

The seven other students playing RapeSafe in Santa Fe High School's teen-parenting class agreed that the question was tricky. For Cowardin, an assistant professor of education at Cal Poly Pomona, that is precisely the reason why teen-agers should play a game about sexual assault.

"It's not sex education," said Cowardin, a former teacher at the high school in Santa Fe Springs, who was there to demonstrate the game. "It's self-defense."

The 42-year-old Cowardin, herself a victim of child molestation, began marketing the rape prevention game last month as a sequel to What If, a board game she invented last year to teach children ages 4 to 10 about sexual abuse.

Two Games Have No Winners

She said that the two informational games, which have no winners or losers, allow children and adolescents to talk about difficult subjects without feeling embarrassed.

"It doesn't trivialize the material," Cowardin said. "And it relaxes the presentation to the point where everyone wants to participate."

With What If already on the market, Cowardin decided to turn to teen-agers, a group that she says needs more attention from health and safety educators. While people often expect teen-agers to behave like adults, Cowardin said, they are surprisingly naive about the dangers of sexual assault.

'Not Part of Birds and Bees'

"Somehow we just assume they can take care of themselves or that they naturally acquire this sort of information," she said. "But it's just not a general part of the birds and bees talk."

Like the first game, RapeSafe is intended to supplement school health classes or other safety programs. Two thousand copies of RapeSafe already have been printed by Oxford Printing Inc. of Whittier and are on sale for about $10 at Page One bookstore in Pasadena and Farrell's Educational Supplies in Whittier, where Cowardin lives.

Both stores have only recently stocked RapeSafe, but a manager at Farrell's said that about 25 copies of What If have been sold since the game went on sale last August.

The boards for both games look like a variation of Monopoly; but instead of trying to win, players simply move their markers along a colored path, discussing responses to the questions.

RapeSafe features six lessons about rape, each represented by a "smart move" and a "dumb move." It's smart, according to the game's rules, to communicate sexual limits to a dating companion. A dumb move, which sends a player to the "rape crisis center," would be to set those sexual limits on a whim or not at all.

Can Lead to 'Date Rape'

Cowardin said that setting sexual limits after having given a "go-ahead" signal often can lead to "date rape," her term for the sexual assault of an acquaintance who has consented to a date but not sex.

"We think teen-agers are the most underreported group when it comes to sexual assault," Cowardin said, explaining that more than half of all teen-age rapes occur with acquaintances. "Most teen-agers don't even realize it was really rape."

A player can also land on two other kinds of spaces. Some squares require the player to correctly answer questions, such as "What is a common characteristic of rapists?" or "When is sex between a husband and wife considered rape?"

Situational Questions

Other squares offer situational questions, such as "What if a stranger blocks your way at a shopping center and gets crude with you?" or "What if an older family friend makes embarrassing inquiries into your sex life?"

Because the situations require personal choices, all answers are accepted. But Cowardin said that students are encouraged to discuss during the game what might be the best possible response.

"I think they learn as much from each other as from teachers in a subject like this," she said. "The kids can put themselves in each situation."

Teen-Parenting Class

Students in Santa Fe High School's teen-parenting class, about two-thirds of whom are teen-age parents, said that they were able to answer many of the questions from personal experience. But almost all of them said they learned something new from the RapeSafe game.

"I used to think a rapist was some guy in a big black trench coat with nothing on underneath," Ramirez said. "Now I know he could be anybody."

Other students said they were surprised to learn that weapons are used in only about 5% of all rapes and that rapists rarely kill their victims.

"Kids should start playing this game in fifth grade," said 17-year-old Regina Quinones. "That's when things start happening."

Cowardin at Cal Poly agreed that RapeSafe could be played by children of almost all ages.

Self-Defense Instructor

"How mature do you have to be to get pregnant?" said Denise Schiavone, a self-defense instructor in the Fontana Unified School District. "I tell my students, 'Forget English, math, science, I don't care. Self-defense is the most important thing you can learn in this school.' "

As far as Cowardin is concerned, that's exactly the point of the game.

"I was worried because most people think teen-agers can take care of themselves," she said. "This is just plain self-protection education."

Cowardin said that she was inspired to create both RapeSafe and What If because of her own experiences, when, as a 6-year-old, she was molested by a policeman who lived in her neighborhood. She said that the policeman, who was never reported, probably molested other children.

"I just wanted to do something for today's kids because I didn't stop the person who molested me," she said. "I know it sounds corny, but the whole thing really started because I wanted to pay him back."

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