Sexual assault and abuse won’t end until we address the root causes – the factors associated with perpetrating all forms of sexual violence and exploitation. Primary prevention is key because it focuses on perpetrator behavior.
Prevention and Safety Tip Lists. They’re so handy! Such a nice, tidy presentation that helps us hit all the main points in a workshop. Plus, we can print it out and have people stick it in their wallet. It’s such a simple tool that can help our audience remember all about that day we came in and talked about sexual assault.
The problem is, sexual assault is not a tidy public health problem. It doesn’t have simple solutions, and it can’t be solved by handing out a list of ways to stay safe. Don’t get me wrong—lists can be great. They just don’t work well for sexual violence prevention. Here are 5 Reasons Tip Lists for Sexual Violence Prevention are Often Problematic:
- They perpetuate the message “don’t get raped” instead of “don’t rape.” For too long, the anti-rape movement has put the onus on the potential victims. We’ve taught young people that the world is a scary place, and they need to operate on a “rape schedule” in order to stay safe. This sends the message that there are always going to be bad people, and our job is to avoid them so we don’t get hurt. Speaking optimistically, wouldn’t it be nice to instead focus on raising our youth to believe that it is their responsibility not to hurt other people? That way, instead of trying to figure out what we can do to avoid the “bad guys,” we can live in a society that doesn’t see raping someone as an option.
- They blame the victim. Providing a handy list of thing to do to not get raped actually sends the message that if someone did get raped, they might have done something wrong. If they had obeyed all the tips on the stay safe list, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Some of the very same victim-blaming messages we work so hard to dismantle in the court system and in news media are actually reinforced through these safety tips. We explain to juries that walking alone at night does not mean a person is “asking for it,” yet we hand out safety cards that say “be sure to travel in groups.” It is a well meaning attempt—we don’t want anyone to get hurt—but in actuality, these lists can be interpreted as saying that if you did get raped, you did something wrong. Let’s instead stick to messages that reinforce one of the main tenets of the sexual violence field: No one asks to be raped.
- They don’t keep us safe. The point of prevention lists is to explain ways to keep something from happening. As such, a list for preventing sunburn will include things like wear sunscreen, use clothing to keep covered, and stay in the shade; things that limit exposure to the sun’s harmful rays, which is the major risk factor for sunburn. To reduce your risk of anything, you need to reduce the thing that causes it; in the case of sexual assault, the cause is people who perpetrate it. There are groups of individuals at higher risk of victimization—college aged women or individuals with disabilities, for example—but we would never tell people “don’t go to college” in order to keep them safe from rape. Instead, we need to address the risk factors for perpetration of sexual violence and reduce those. To me, the scariest part of prevention tip lists is that they offer false security. You can follow every tip on the list, but as long as there are rapists, you can still be sexually assaulted.
- They focus on the individual. Most prevention tip lists focus on things an individual needs to do to avoid being raped. In addition to focusing on preventing perpetration instead of avoiding victimization, we also need to look beyond the individual factors that we can affect to prevent sexual violence. Looking at the socioecological model, we know that beyond the individual, we can address risk factors at the relationship, community, and societal levels too. For example, we can work to help youth feel safer at home and school by working with parents, caregivers, and school staff. By helping the adults engage more with youth’s lives, the youth can feel more supported and connected, which lowers their risk of perpetrating sexual violence. This is a strategy for sexual violence prevention that allows an entire community to be responsible for preventing violence.
- They simply aren’t enough. When we hand out a safety tip list, an audience member might put it in their wallet. When they’ve misplaced their Dunkin Donuts gift card and are emptying out their wallet, frantically searching for it, they might catch a glimpse of the tip list and think about our presentation. But one presentation with nothing but maybe a hurried glance when someone is trying to fight off a caffeine withdrawal headache is not enough to make our message stick. For prevention messages to be truly effective, they need to be repeated often, in many different forms, in many different settings, from many different people. It might be great that once a year we have the attention of a whole classroom all focusing on sexual violence during the one hour presentation from the rape crisis lady, but if our message is going to sink in, the youth also need to hear it the other 364 days of the year. They need to hear it from their math teacher, their student council adviser, their French club leader, their basketball coach, their parents, their clergy leader, their supervisor at their after school job, and every day through the words and actions of their peers. Only then will we see a shift in the norms that currently allow sexual violence to occur, and then we will be practicing true prevention.