Broadening the Conversation: On the Language of Prevention
How do we prevent sexual violence? This is the question that activists, law enforcement, and public health professionals have long wrestled with. Too often, the answer to this question seems to be focused on the would-be victims. Primarily, the question becomes, “what can women do to prevent their being sexually assaulted?” Right away, we see a problem with language or thinking such as this. Implicitly, it suggests that women can be blamed for their sexual assault if they did not take the necessary precautions to prevent it. Don’t walk alone, never leave your drink unattended, don’t drink too much, etc. These are all important things to think about in a culture (and in particular, on a college campus) where the threat of rape seems palpably present. We know that every two minutes, another person in the U.S. is sexually assaulted and one out of every six women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime But while these precautionary tips ought to be recognized and publicized given the current climate on sexual violence, they should not be equated with prevention, since, contra the victim blaming mantra, it is only the rapist who can prevent rape from occurring; true prevention thus lies with the perpetrator. Instead of “prevention strategies,” we might understand tips aimed at potential victims as risk reduction strategies. What we are left with then is the chance to rethink the idea of “prevention” and the forms it might take. This might even give us pause to consider why it is that we’re talking about sexual violence prevention in the first place. What are the underlying societal factors making this a topic of concern and how might we address those fundamental issues as a way to address the problem of sexual violence? There is much to be said in answering these questions and many have already taken up the charge. But overall, we need to expand sexual violence prevention to include inquiry in to the fundamental attitudes, beliefs, and values that sustain a culture where rape is prevalent. We need to challenge these perceptions in order to reduce sexual violence. Additionally, we might think more broadly about our notions of healthy sexuality and work to reduce shame around safe and consensual experiences of sexual pleasure. Instead of fear mongering rhetoric aimed at would-be victims, we might work to empower all individuals to challenge conventional understandings of sexual relationality at a fundamental level. What possibilities for change might this rethinking of prevention open up?