When fire-fighters arrive on the scene to spray a building that’s on fire, they are managing a fire, but that’s not prevention. To prevent a problem, we have to stop it before it happens. Prevention means that a fire-fighter never has to arrive on the scene. So, we change building code policies, train people about how to use appliances safely, and normalize social behaviors that prevent fires.
Similarly, to prevent the harm caused by acts of violence and abuse, we want to live in a community where it is more and more unlikely that any person would ever think of harming another person through an act of sexual violence. To accomplish that, it’s a lot like fire prevention. We adopt new policies, create protective environments where people can interact in safe and supportive ways, and spread skills and social norms that stop the “fire” from beginning in the first place.
Preventing acts of sexual violence is public health work. We rely on the successes of many who have come before us and have helped our communities learn to use seat belts, stop smoking, and prevent disease. Effective public health efforts have created massive change in the past, using a model that follows four basic steps:
It’s about looking for the “bright spots” – what people are doing that is truly increasing safety – and spreading the light around.
There are four main categories of “protective factors” that help prevent sexual violence. None of them can alone prevent sexual violence, and must all be part of a community to see rates of abuse decrease. The first is Inclusive Belonging – this is the kind of interdependence and sense of a shared social ecosystem that makes sure that every single person has an equitable seat at the table. The second is Social-Emotional Literacy, which is about understanding emotions, welcoming them as part of a full human and communal life, and find healthy ways to express and comfort emotional distress. Consent – establishing healthy norms around sexuality and boundaries. At SARA, we define consent as a “free happy clear yes, and nothing less” – and we try to practice asking first in daily interactions with people, and respecting their own self-determination. And finally, Transformative Accountability and Bystander Empowerment is about how we address harm in our communities – do we shame and alienate, or do we call people in and empower bystanders to safely stop harm once it has begun? Do we protect people who have been harmed? Do we practice accountability in a way that supports the prevention of further harm? For example, when our 11-year-old crosses another child’s boundaries in some small way, can we invite new ways of relating instead of shaming? Can we invite adults who have caused harm in the past (which is every one of us in one way or another) to transform and stop harm? And can we as bystanders take responsibility for helping to bring about community-wide transformation?
In our region, we get to work with amazing community members who are bringing prevention strategies into their workplaces, schools, and homes. Our Restaurant Coalition members have developed tools to help staff and managers communicate quickly and effectively to stop sexual harassment in the moment. Our Parent Council provides tools and resources about emotional literacy to other parents throughout the region. Our Green Dot programs in high schools shift the norms among adults and students in the building, so that bystanders are empowered to intervene to stop abuse and every person in the building sees that they have a role to play. Coaching Boys Into Men equips coaches of boys’ sports teams to have conversations where they model the inclusive and respectful behavior they want in their students. The Ten Men program engages men in advocating for change in their own spheres of influence.
There are opportunities every day for each one of us to engage in prevention. Any time you support the inclusion of voices who have often been ignored, you are doing prevention. When you support your child as she expresses her anger – not shaming her or shutting her down, but calmly setting boundaries and providing comfort – you are doing prevention. When you encourage your son to speak to his friend who harasses people at school, you are doing prevention. When you model consent and ask before hugging someone, you are doing prevention. Some of these may seem small and some may seem big, but they add up.