Prevention demands equity. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center developed this theme for Sexual Assault Awareness Month with a call for racial equity and taking action to end injustice(s). Many of us know deep in our hearts that a more equitable and just world would have less interpersonal and systemic violence. We feel that longing for equity when we describe trans joy, when we talk about how we want to be treated, and how we want all survivors to be treated.
Before joining FORGE, I worked in domestic violence prevention for many years. One of the things that I learned was that I had been doing violence prevention work most of my life – I just didn’t know I was doing it. Sometimes public health or academic language can make prevention sound like something that only some people can do. But in fact, preventing violence is the work we do in so much of our day-to-day lives – when we learn to take care of ourselves and each other.
Prevention is safe housing.
Prevention is living wages and paid leave.
Prevention is safe environments – schools, neighborhoods, workplaces.
Prevention is comprehensive, inclusive, consent-focused sex education.
Prevention is equal rights.
Prevention is ending systemic harm.
Sexual violence happens for a number of reasons. In the United States, we live in a culture that is constantly telling us that it’s okay for some people to have power over others. We live in a world where groups of people (countries, corporations, cultural communities) strive to be the biggest and the best, which often results in causing deep fissures and fractures. We repeatedly see people with influence or authority get away with violence. Most of us live in a “me” culture, rather than a “we” culture, where the needs, feelings, and safety of every person is prioritized. We are not taught communication skills that include using, understanding, and respecting “no.” We do not live in a world where we are taught to communicated kindly with each other. All of these factors and many more are reasons why sexual violence happens.
To prevent sexual violence, we need to 1) address the conditions that make people commit acts of violence, and 2) change the conditions that make violence an easy or accessible choice for them.
To address the conditions that make people commit acts of violence, we need to change social norms. This means discouraging violence and encourage consent and communication; providing support for people to understand and manage their feelings and thoughts; and creating a world where everyone is valued.
To change the conditions that make violence an accessible option, we start to look at changing our environment as well as our social norms. We can discourage violence through holding people accountable for their behavior, including through transformative or restorative justice models. We can also start to think about where and how violence happens so that we can take steps to create safer spaces for everyone.
For a long time, mainstream “prevention” efforts focused on reducing the risk for potential victims/survivors. Tips about not walking alone at night, tools for testing if our drinks have been drugged, warnings about red flags in relationships abound. These things can be empowering. They give us tools to think through our own choices and may reduce our risk for some kinds of violence in some situations. But too often these suggestions get used against victims and survivors. Survivors are asked why they left their drink alone, why they wore that outfit, why they even existed out in the world. For trans and nonbinary people, we are told far too often that it is our fault that violence happens against us, that our very existence causes people to harass, discriminate, and to assault us. Our communities have the right to safety plan and navigate the risks of the world without being blamed for other people’s actions. Prevention invites us to look at how we can address more of the root causes of the harm, rather than placing the burden of change on survivors or victims.
What can you do to prevent sexual violence?
We are preventing violence when we examine our own behavior. Are we checking for consent? Are we treating partners with care and compassion? Are we learning how to be aware of our own feelings so we can communicate in kinder ways? Are we honoring our boundaries so we can honestly say yes or no in interactions with others?
People engage in prevention when they challenge social norms that promote violence, including by challenging the gender binary. Restrictive ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman (and the belief that those are the only two options) contribute to interpersonal violence. People use those ideas to control others and they restrict our freedoms to be ourselves. Prevention also might look like saying, “That’s not funny,” when someone tells a hurtful joke.
People engage in prevention when they advocate for better policies and practices. These include comprehensive sex education, more social services, fewer police, and quality, trans/nonbinary informed health and mental health care. Each of these policies gives our communities more tools to learn about ourselves and each other, and the resources to interact in compassionate, consent-based ways. For example, quality sex education could help us to learn how to talk to partners, how to respect boundaries, and how to get to know our own bodies.
People engage in prevention when we connect with our humanity and the humanity of others. Many of the places where there are the highest rates of sexual violence – war, prison, on the streets – are places where some people have been encouraged to ignore the humanity of another group of people. This hurts all of us.
Engage in prevention through our day-to-day conversations with others. We can model and practice consent – and not just in sexy situations. Ask the new person you meet if they want a handshake. Don’t make little kids give goodbye hugs. If you’re a healthcare provider or other professional that touches people, explain your actions before taking them, then ask if it’s okay.
Ask questions and talk about what you see and hear. Hanging out with friends or family? “I love this song, but do you think the relationship sounds healthy?” or “Oh wow, I’m so glad those characters finally got together, but I really want people to ask me before they kiss me.”
We support prevention when we support and advocate for survivors and stop victim-blaming. In order to prevent violence, we need to put the responsibility for violence where it belongs. That means making sure survivors aren’t blamed for what was done to them and have the support and resources they want and need.
To learn more about the connections between equity, sexual violence prevention and trans/nonbinary communities check out: