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By on March 4, 2014

Using a comprehensive approach to preventing sexual violence

We deserve a rape free campusIn January, President Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.  The members of this task force (which include the Attorney General, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Secretary of Education) have many tasks, including “providing institutions with evidence-based best and promising practices for preventing and responding to rape and sexual assault. “

In the last month, many organizations have provided the Task Force feedback through listening sessions held in February and written input. From my perspective as a prevention practitioner, we need to ensure prevention, including primary prevention, is part of a comprehensive approach to addressing sexual violence on college campuses and in our communities. A comprehensive approach to prevent sexual violence incorporates diverse strategies that are culturally relevant, sustainable, responsive to community needs, and consider risk and protective factors on the individual, relationship, community and societal levels.  We want prevention efforts that are informed by the best available evidence as well as fit the specific needs of the community.

When reviewing several organizations input to the community, I was alarmed when I saw the recommendations to the Task Force from RAINN that defined primary prevention in this manner: “…the most effective — the primary — way to prevent sexual violence is to use the criminal justice system to take more rapists off the streets.”  While a criminal justice response is part of the solution, we cannot end rape by primarily enforcing criminal laws. I cannot think of any social problem that has been solved primarily by criminal enforcement.

In order to prevent sexual violence we need to identify community-wide solutions, not only actions that are addressing sexual assault on an individual case-by-case basis.  Thus, changing culture and norms that shape behaviors are key elements to prevention. I do not see the value of labeling efforts to end rape culture as an “unfortunate trend” as RAINN does in their recommendations. Finding ways to effectively transform rape culture is a necessary piece of the change we seek.

I recommend comprehensive community-based solutions. In February, I had the opportunity to speak about prevention at the UVA Dialogue on Sexual Misconduct Among College Students. I described how effort to prevent sexual violence should include all of these elements:

  • Services: Provide victim-centered supportive services to survivors of sexual violence and those impacted by violence by sexual violence, and dedicate sufficient resources to support individual and community healing.
  • Systems: Build effective responses, services and systems response to sexual violence incidents to provide consistent community and social sanctions for perpetrators of violence.
  • Awareness: Conduct efforts to engage the community in dialogue around sexual violence as a serious community issue, raising the profile of the problem of sexual violence, and making it relevant to individual and community lived experience. This includes efforts toward public safety that focus on helping individuals and communities managing the existing conditions that facilitate sexual violence.  Such safety efforts can include publicizing available resources, individual empowerment strategies, and community safety plans.
  • Primary Prevention: Implement strategies that seek to develop healthy, robust, and just communities crucial to interrupt the culture in which sexual violence thrives. These strategies promote the norms and behaviors that support a community without sexual violence.

We cannot lose sight of primary prevention efforts. I agree with RAINN that we should not mandate the use of specific curricula toward preventing sexual violence as each college and community needs to find the strategies that best meet thier specific needs and build upon the assets of that community.  However, I do not agree with RAINN that “research has shown that prevention efforts that focus solely on men and “redefining masculinity,” …are unlikely to be effective.” Sexual Violence Research Initiative’s 2011 Report Engaging Boys and Men in the Prevention of Sexual Violence and other research indicate many strategies that have promise in reducing sexual violence perpetration.

I wish sexual violence could be prevented with a video, brochure, or pre-packaged program. However, we need to dedicate a range of activities, that includes activities that RAINN calls for, and comprehensive prevention efforts to create colleges and communities without rape.

Photo from Her Campus.

4 responses to “Using a comprehensive approach to preventing sexual violence”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful response, David. I am always in favor of a comprehensive approach to sexual violence prevention, which includes work to address the culture and norms that allow sexual violence to exist. It cannot be done without addressing the root causes and rape culture. If risk reduction and criminal justice are the only approaches to ending SV, we would have solved this issue by now. Thank you, again!

  2. I completely agree with David’s own suggestions on prevention here. Getting all of of prevention targets covered at a variety of ecological levels is likely to be the key strategy in reducing sexual violence. And I very much agree that post-hoc tertiary criminal justice approaches are unlikely to be effective alone. I would suggest, however, that perhaps the RAINN quotes have been taken slightly out of context.

    Firstly, the quote about rigorous prosecution (and it’s potentially positive effect on reporting of sexual violence) is followed by a statement that this approach should be accompanied by educational, more traditionally ‘primary’, prevention approaches. Secondly, the quote relating to the use of programs that focus *solely* on masculinity being ineffective is also slightly unfair, since David’s own recommendations do not focus solely on one potential target group and include individuals across the spectrum of perpetrators, survivors, professionals, and policy makers.

    I am also in favor of RAINN’s apathy towards the term ‘rape culture’ and agree that it’s a worrying trend, simply because it’s a catch-all term with very little operational use (similar criticisms are made of terms like the ‘War on Terror’). Yes, there are specific at-risk populations and environments (and the college campus is a dangerous mix of youth and opportunity) and there are myths about women, consent, and sexual aggression that are linked with sexual aggression. But there is little to be gained at a strategic or operational level by making broad generalizations and not providing specific, actionable advice and information. Also, by tacitly implicating all males in perpetration of sexual violence we risk alienating precisely those bystanders we seek to engage with.

    But again, I think David’s recommendations here are great. Services, systems, and awareness. Improvements in these areas will likely have huge gains in terms of the prevention of sexual violence.

  3. Davis Lisak wrote this in a letter to the White House Task Force clarifying his views (as RAINN referenced his work in their letter):
    I am writing to clarify a potential misunderstanding that might arise from the letter submitted to you by RAINN on February 28, 2014, and signed by Scott Berkowitz and Rebecca O’Connor. In that letter, my research on serial offending on college campuses is cited (p. 2 & 3 of the letter), and a written statement of mine is paraphrased (p. 3 of the letter).
    I want to clarify that I did not participate in the writing of this letter, nor was
    I consulted about it.
    With regard to the merits of prevention efforts and the criminal justice response to sexual violence, I do not see these as competing approaches. In fact, I see them each as necessary and complementary components of any comprehensive program aimed at reducing the prevalence of sexual violence.
    As just one example of the complementarity: serial offenders, who are indeed responsible for the vast majority of sexual assaults, are extremely unlikely to be directly influenced by education and prevention programs. However, those programs educate the wider community. Members of that wider community ultimately sit on juries and judicial panels, and the education they received reduces the likelihood that misconceptions and false myths about rape will influence the judicial process. Furthermore, as awareness increases and misconceptions decrease, the attitudes of offenders and their facilitators become increasingly deviant, a process that makes investigation of these cases more productive.
    Conversely, an effective criminal justice response is a necessary component of an effective prevention strategy. When offenders are not held accountable, prevention messages are undermined by the understandable skepticism and cynicism that is bred by that lack of accountability.
    In sum, I do not view prevention and criminal justice or judicial processes as competing or antagonistic responses to sexual violence. We absolutely need
    both, and we absolutely need to continue our efforts to increase the efficiency of

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