I’ve participated in many programs to learn more about interpersonal violence and how to better educate about and prevent such crimes. At many programs I’ve attended, facilitators have used a similar analogy to the one I’m about to share. Imagine you are sitting along the bank of a river. All of a sudden you hear a person screaming and calling for help. You look up and see the person caught in the rushing river. What do you do? At every presentation I’ve attended, the audience always says they would pull that person from the river. But the story is not over. After you rescue that person, three more come down the river needing help. Then five more. Ten more. As fast as you are trying to pull individual people from the river, more and more people continue to rush past you screaming for help. What do you do? After several minutes of figuring out how to pull multiple people out of the river, someone in the audience usually says, “I would go upstream and figure out why they’re falling in.”
This example is used to better illustrate the concept of primary prevention, which is used most often in public health to eradicate an unhealthy behavior (e.g., smoking). Pulling individuals out of the river (i.e., only focusing education on telling women to “stay safe”) is not a long-term solution to end interpersonal violence. Our strategy has to include primary prevention tactics, which include challenging the myths that, even unintentionally, support sexual violence.
I know it is challenging to have conversations around sexual violence. It can be especially challenging for women (or women’s groups) to think about how they can work in a meaningful way to end sexual assault when we are not the perpetrators. It can be difficult to develop educational programming that goes beyond risk reduction and supporting survivors. Directing efforts through a primary prevention lens that focuses on our engagement in rape-supportive culture empowers us all to take a role in ending sexual violence.