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By on June 11, 2015

Comprehensive Prevention: Include both changing social norms and self-defense

College Rape Prevention Program Proves a Rare Success
New York Times headline on June 11, 2015 about new study.

A new study, Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that college women trained in self-defense reduce the incidence of sexual assault by 50%.

The issue of empowerment-based self-defense, is one that is near and dear to my heart. I was very happy to speak with the Los Angeles Times writer, Melissa Healy who was writing about this study. This afternoon, I was interviewed about the study on KCBS Radio in the Bay area.

For many years, CALCASA partnered with Peace Over Violence to offer self-defense instructor’s training to California’s Rape Crisis Centers, thereby institutionalizing empowerment-based skill building throughout the state’s sexual assault safety-net. The statewide training program was eliminated when the focus of prevention shifted to primary prevention. Since that time, there has been nation-wide skepticism about self-defense. Much of the criticism is steeped in legitimate and real concerns about the dangers of placing the responsibility of preventing sexual violence on the potential victims, and on the need to focus prevention on changing attitudes that foster sexual violence.

While I absolutely agree with both of those points, I also believe that in order to end sexual violence, we must take a comprehensive approach to prevention. In an editorial titled A Comprehensive Approach to Sexual Violence Prevention published in the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine written by Center for Disease Control and Prevention ‘s (CDC) CDC’s Katherine Basile, cites the usefulness of the Social Ecological model as a framework for understanding and preventing sexual violence. “To prevent sexual violence, we must develop strategies at all of these ecologic levels…” The CDC describes how the Social-Ecological Model “also suggests that in order to prevent violence, it is necessary to act across multiple levels of the model at the same time. This approach is more likely to sustain prevention efforts over time than any single intervention.”

It is this very approach which keeps me invested in preserving empowerment-based self-defense programming as part of comprehensive prevention efforts. We must absolutely remain diligent in our primary prevention efforts, working towards social norms change, and creating greater commitment from bystanders. However, while we shift society’s focus off of holding victims’ responsible for preventing sexual assault, and channel that into changing the attitudes that perpetuate sexual assault, we must not eliminate prevention efforts with potential victims from the mix. It is critical that they be empowered to recognize, communicate and if necessary utilize physical defense techniques when taught from a perspective of increasing options, skills and choices, rather than restricting and/or placing responsibility on victims, self-defense can be a tool for building empowered individuals.

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