4 Proactive Ways to Approach Sexual Assault Awareness Month on Campus

April is nationally recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) — an annual campaign that grew out of grassroots anti-violence movements. 

The creation of SAAM is thanks to the tireless work of female activists, many of whom worked at the nation’s first support centers for victims of rape and domestic violence and organized events like Take Back the Night. While there is no one singular founder or catalyst for SAAM, many years of tireless activism, led by women, created the awareness month we recognize today. 

Not only did this advocacy lead to widespread public recognition of sexual violence as a serious issue, it also led to changes in federal law — perhaps most notably the signing of the  Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1993. Some campus advocacy programs are still funded through VAWA today.

Unfortunately, sexual violence is still a huge problem-especially among college students. There is more work to do, and SAAM gives us time and space to focus our collective energy on the issue.   

As a violence prevention specialist, I work year-round to design and implement primary prevention practices into student programming. Here are my tips and frameworks for making your SAAM events prevention-focused and evidence-based.

4 Approaches

1. Understand the Levels of Prevention

The levels of prevention is a public health model that can be applied to violence on college campuses, though it’s also used in local communities and around the world to address high-risk alcohol and drug use, safe driving, the spread of virus (including COVID-19), and many more public health issues.

There are three levels:

Primary prevention involves preventing violence before it occurs. Programs at this level create environments wherein violence is less likely to occur. For example,  by challenging students to investigate how power, oppression, and language can foster unsafe environments, you can empower them to work to stop violent attitudes — among themselves and their peers.

Secondary preventions attempt to stop violence within environments that are at a higher risk. Bystander intervention programs are at the secondary prevention level as they teach students how to intervene in high-risk environments like fraternity parties or bars hosting a “ladies night” drink promotion.

Tertiary prevention programs support survivors after violence has already occurred. Many awareness-raising events utilize tertiary prevention as they support survivors’ voices and uplift their stories.

While secondary and tertiary prevention methods can make a real difference for those who are in the midst of facing violence or already have, such preventions do not necessarily stop more violence from happening. Bur, fortunately, you can boost their impact by incorporating primary and secondary prevention methods into tertiary programming.

For example,  leading up to Denim Day, a flagship SAAM event of my office, we host several events that incorporate primary prevention methods. My favorite was a primary prevention program designed by a  graduate assistant. She taught Latinx fraternity leaders to facilitate discussions with their members about healthy masculinity. They also discussed ways to disrupt language and actions permissive of violence against women. 

This year, we’ll host a secondary prevention program to remind students of bystander intervention techniques through tabling. Students can stop at a table to grab a sticker decorated with reminders to speak up against violence and chat with our peer educators, who will ask them how they’ve intervened to help others. You can easily add this technique to any SAAM event you are hosting, which will remind students of the campus norms to intervene and keep their friends safe. Prevention isn’t one-and-done; the more times you can remind students of campus expectations, the better. 

Finally, for tertiary prevention, my office shares our victim advocacy resources widely so that students who have already faced violence can connect with support services. 

You can incorporate methods of the levels of prevention into your April programming, helping to prevent violence and raise awareness for the support survivors need.

2. Incorporate Peer Education

gif of a man saying 'guys we are not the offense and women are not the defense'

Another essential prevention method is peer education. Though most students are loath to admit it, they’re incredibly motivated by what their peers think about them. So, incorporating peer education into your SAAM programming can be a powerful way to influence your students to incorporate violence prevention into their lives. 

There are several ways to do this! Students can create and implement their own programs for SAAM, facilitate discussions and presentations, and encourage their friends to attend events. 

For example, we host peer-led workshops on topics like victim-blaming 101, bystander intervention, and supporting a friend who has faced violence. You can also check out this amazing guide from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center for ideas on prevention-focused programming that students can help implement for their peers. 

Through peer educators, students will learn at a faster rate and understand that anti-violence is the norm at your campus. (Check out my next tip for how to use this norm to influence students.) 

3. Use Social Norms Data

Social Norms Data is an amazing evidence-based prevention practice. Students are incredibly influenced by what their peers think or, more accurately, what they think their peers think. You can use this to your advantage during SAAM by showing students data that proves that their peers do not condone violence.

For example, if you are planning an event wherein you hand out teal ribbons to increase awareness for sexual violence, include a card with a statistic about students’ attitudes. If you don’t have campus-specific data to share, check out this study for some strong nationwide statistics.

Each time the perception gap is corrected with social norms data, a student will feel more comfortable in making choices that align with their values.

4. Incorporate Bystander Intervention Programming

Many campuses offer bystander intervention training throughout the academic year. But even if students are already trained, April is still an excellent time to give them refresher tips on bystander techniques.

Bystander intervention programs, a secondary prevention method, educate students on how to intervene in situations that might lead to violence. They utilize methods of intervention, like directly checking in with someone who may be hurt or calling for help. 

 If you already have a bystander intervention program, consider what SAAM events you can incorporate bystander messages into. For example, our team of peer educators hosts informational tables leading up to Denim Day. While tabling, they have conversations with their peers about how to intervene and put an end to violence before it begins.

If you do not currently have a bystander intervention program on campus, Sexual Assault Awareness Month could be a great time to launch it. If you have funds available to partner with national organizations, considering working with Bringing in the Bystander or Green Dot Or you could create your own campus-specific bystander training program by checking out the literature and creating a program that fits your campus well.

Using these tips will help elevate your SAAM programming on campus. By focusing on prevention, rather than just awareness, you’ll contribute to making campus a safer place for every student. 

gif of Rose Byrne saying 'It's on us to look out for each other'

What plans does your campus have for SAAM this year? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.


Kacie Otto

About the author: Kacie Otto (she/her) is the Violence Prevention Specialist and Victim Advocate at Marquette University. If she’s not knitting or reading a book about feminism, you might find her at a campsite or in a thrift shop. Learn how we can help get your students involved.