Rethinking Prevention

To prevent sexual violence, our collective attention needs to shift towards its root causes.

We need to examine the social conditions that are currently enabling, and even encouraging, sexually abusive behaviours. 

Sexual violence is about power and control. The choice to use sexual violence against someone is rooted in oppressive attitudes and beliefs about those who are valued in our society and those who are not. Those who commit sexual violence feel justified in their actions because sexual violence is consistently minimized and normalized by the world around us.

When it comes to sexual violence prevention, it is quite common for prevention strategies to be directed at potential victims instead of those who choose to use abusive behaviours. 

For this reason, those strategies have been ineffective at preventing sexual violence as a complex social issue. Traditional prevention tips tend to be directed at women in particular. For example:

  • Don’t go out late at night
  • Cover your drink or don’t get drunk
  • Don’t wear revealing clothing 
  • Walk in groups or stay near your friends
  • Don’t find yourself alone with someone you don’t know
  • Take self-defence classes

Individuals have a right to do what makes them feel safe. However, these individual risk-reduction strategies will not prevent sexual violence overall as they are not focused on influencing the behaviours of potential offenders. 

While well-intentioned, in addition to being ineffective, these prevention strategies can have a harmful impact on those who experience sexual violence. 

They suggest that individuals are responsible for preventing their own victimization. Following a sexual assault, they can lead survivors and their support people to question what they did or didn’t do to cause the assault. This is an understandable attempt to make sense of something incomprehensible. However, it is often the source of deep shame and self-blame for many survivors. Those who are harmed by sexual violence are never to blame. Those who use abusive behaviours are fully responsible for their actions – the bottom line is that a survivor would not have been sexually abused or assaulted had another person not chosen to use abusive behaviours against them.

We need to stop focusing on the behaviours of those who experience sexual violence and instead start examining how our society continues to cultivate people who feel justified in their choices to use sexual violence against others. 

Most traditional prevention strategies stem from popular misconceptions about sexual violence. Effective sexual violence prevention strategies need to be rooted in an understanding of why sexual violence occurs and need to be informed by the realities of sexual violence.