Preventing Sexual Violence

Sexual violence can take many forms, from unwanted touching to rape. It happens to people of all ages, from all backgrounds, cultures and faiths. It affects women and girls more than men and boys, but it can impact anyone. It occurs in schools, homes, workplaces and public places and is often committed by strangers, but it can also happen to acquaintances.

When someone experiences sexual violence, it has a profound and long-lasting effect. It may restrict their employment, educational or recreational opportunities, limit their personal freedoms and cause feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and helplessness. It can also result in physical health problems, including increased risk of reproductive diseases.

Preventing sexual violence starts with knowing the warning signs and being aware of who is most likely to perpetrate abuse. Perpetrators are most likely to target people who appear unaware of their surroundings, have alcohol or drugs in their systems or are alone or isolated from friends and family. They are also more likely to target those with easy access to their victims, such as those who live in a dorm room, have easy-to-open windows or have a car in a driveway close to the entrance of an apartment building.

Children who tell you about being touched or assaulted need to know that you take them seriously and won’t be angry with them for telling the truth. Some children may feel guilty as if they somehow provoked their abuse, but the only thing that can be done is to reassure them that what happened was not their fault.

People who experience sexual violence may go through stages of coping and recovery, including denial, anger, guilt and fear. They may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms and be reluctant to talk about their experiences. As survivors move through recovery, they typically reach a stage of acceptance where the trauma is not a central focus and feelings of distress resolve.

Many myths about sexual violence abound, making it difficult to have an informed conversation about it. Some of these include the belief that if a man doesn’t fight off an attack, it is his fault because he should have known to put up resistance. This view ignores the fact that no victim — male or female, straight or gay – deserves to be raped. It also ignores the fact that a person’s reaction to an assault doesn’t have to be sexual in nature to be considered an act of violence.

It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that safe and healthy environments are created in schools, businesses and community settings. This can be done by promoting healthy relationships, behaviors and attitudes; by intervening to stop harmful behavior; and by supporting the efforts of victims and survivors. It can also be accomplished by creating proactive policies that support a safer environment, such as bystander intervention initiatives and by advocating for legislation like Title IX at universities. For individuals, it means being alert to unsafe situations and refusing to be a bystander to violence.