I came away from this day not only with more information, I came away with the belief that primary prevention is something which can be done and that in Minnesota the process of integrating primary prevention at multiple levels is on its way. The progress could be greater and faster with more funding, but limited funding doesn't mean no progress.
Primary prevention of sexual violence is focused on preventing perpetration not victimization. This shift of focus may seem like nothing more than semantics to some people but the difference is huge.
This is not some abstract shift in thinking about what might be possible.
This is a belief and a strategy grounded in the experiences in dealing with public health issues which have been proven to work. The public health approach doesn't promise that there will never be acts of sexual violence. What it does promise is that the rate of sexual violence perpetration can be drastically reduced by the effective involvement of many people with a variety of experiences and responsibilities.
Those who avoid thinking about the issue of sexual violence because they assume it is depressing and hopeless need to rethink their assumptions and their sense of powerlessness when it comes to sexual violence. There is a strategy to being powerful -- in a good and effective way -- when it comes to sexual violence.
Because most of the attendees already understood that other models of prevention don't work to reduce the rate of sexual violence perpetration, there wasn't much discussion of old strategies. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who as speakers talked about this new strategy thought about how it compared to the old strategy of sexual violence prevention which centered on educating people about how to avoid being victims of sexual violence.
Some of this education which gets labeled as prevention serves an important non-primary prevention purpose such as helping children to recognize when someone has violated their personal sexual boundaries in a way which crosses the line into criminal behavior. However, if a school brought in the best student-focused educational programs but had terrible reporting/enforcement policies or practices then employee offenders who were identified thanks to that education could continue a pattern of perpetrating.
The old strategy, which caused many people to feel hopeless about preventing sexual violence, did little to reduce the overall rate of sexual violence perpetration at a practical level. If there was some primary prevention messages in the education directed at young children which could help reduce the rate of sexual violence committed by those children when they became teenagers or adults the immediate prevention failure might undermine support for that education to be repeated with the next set of students or continued as students matured.
The strategy which Minnesota is using is breaking primary prevention work down into 3 working teams which have participants from a variety of sectors. The 3 actions teams are:
develops sexual violence prevention messages and healthy sexuality messages for selected audiences and throughout the state
- Policy and Legislation:
recommends legislation and organizational policies and practices to effect change
- Data and Research:
identifies data sources, compiles and organizes relevant research, evaluates prevention programs, and shares data and research broadly
In my own example on prevention education I showed how policy failures could undermine a great messaging program. Research on attitudes and behavior of those who did and did not attend these types of programs can help identify what messages are sticking. A yearly review might show when attitudes take a major shift away from primary prevention.
People who understand the importance of these 3 team efforts can help advance primary prevention where they live, work or go to school without being part of any formal team. The 3 team approach could also be used by businesses or organizations. It may be as simple as raising the issue that one area of primary prevention has been neglected.
One action which relates to the work of all 3 teams is a letter (pdf) sent by Jim McDonough, Ramsey county commissioner, urging each county in Minnesota to develop an action plan for the prevention of sexual violence. This is obviously a message which is seeking to change policies and while the letter itself doesn't quote any data or research, the data and research on sexual violence in Minnesota has been and will likely continue to be referenced in conversations related to these letters.
So far I can find confirmation that 3 more MN counties have followed Ramsey county's example (including my own) by passing their own sexual violence prevention resolution. This effort to get wider participation isn't limited to 1 letter sent during Sexual Violence Prevention Month. Multiple people will be working to expand this effort.
Those being sought to join the Minnesota effort to prevent sexual violence on a wider scale aren't just county commissioners, they are community leaders of all kinds. What I like about this approach is that it doesn't exclude anyone because it is not purely a top down plan. A core message during this day-long event was that sexual violence is a civil rights issue and in this process of preventing sexual violence we need to ensure that all voices are heard.
The saddest part of the day was the emphasis that we have to work to get many people to care about sexual violence before they can be convinced to support primary prevention of sexual violence. This reality goes a long way to explaining to me why sexual violence is so common.
The portion of the spectrum of prevention on building coalitions means that I don't have to personally get everyone to care. People who would dismiss me as a troublemaking feminist who doesn't understand the challenges of managing a county might listen to someone like Jim McDonough. Maybe at some point that type of person might realize that I am more than they assumed me to be, but they can help with primary prevention even if they never have that realization. Groups who disagree in many areas can be part of effective coalitions and that includes the coalitions it will take to be effective at primary prevention of sexual violence.
The longer I've been blogging the more I understand that a core part of messaging is getting widespread clarity and understanding of the full scope of sexual violence. Those who view real sexual violence as limited to only acts where the victim was threatened with a weapon or hospitalized won't help prevent the "not real" sexual violence and may feel no remorse when they commit the "not real" sexual violence.
An example of research which supports the messaging and legislation portions of primary prevention is included in the article entitled False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault (pdf) published by The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women. The article uses research to undermine the popular backlash message that most reports of non-stranger rape are false.
In part 2 , I discuss framing. In part 2, I will go into more specifics about these 3 Minnesota teams.
For previous posts on sexual and domestic violence prevention in Minnesota, check out my posts on Stop It Before It Starts education I attended in May.