Empowering Students to Engage in Violence Prevention

There is no doubt that there has been a cultural shift on college campuses which has stigmatized rape and inspired mass mobilization against sexual violence. Despite these cultural changes, sexual violence persists.

Some have attributed the disjointed patterns in attitude versus behavior, in part, to rape myth acceptance. When rape is narrowly and exclusively defined as an act committed by a stranger, through physical force, and against someone who makes significant attempts to physically fight off or flee the attack, this allows perpetrators of other sexually coercive behavior that don’t fit into the stranger-rape trope to distance themselves from the label of rapist (Pascoe 2016). 

Programs which address these rape myths can be useful in helping students conceptualize a more realistic view of the issue. And at a behavioral level, individuals may feel that obtaining verbal consent is awkward, uncomfortable, or a mood killer. Sexuality education that incorporates the element of sexual pleasure and communication into a message of sexual responsibility may help to address this problem.

Given the importance of sexual violence prevention, how can you build programs that engage students and help change behaviors?

The CDC compiled a helpful document which describes best practices in developing, selecting, and implementing prevention strategies with the highest chance of successful sexual violence prevention. As you get started on your journey to build effective sexual violence prevention programs, use these questions to guide your work.  

How will you define success?

Before you do anything else, identify what outcome you are trying to achieve. What is the message that you are seeking to convey through your programming? How will you know if you have succeeded in communicating that message? What outcome are you hoping to see in your campus community?

Programmatic goals can vary — while some programs may solely work to inform on campus policy, others may work to change beliefs, and others may work to teach communication skills and change behaviors.

If, for example, Program A seeks to inform students about the school’s sexual misconduct policy and familiarize them with its procedures, a successful outcome would be demonstrable student knowledge and understanding of the policy. But if Program B worked to prevent violence before it occurred, simply learning institutional policy wouldn’t be a successful outcome.

Often, campus programs seek to change attitudes regarding rape. To achieve this goal, a great bulk of the sexual violence prevention literature uses brief, one-session educational programs aimed at increasing knowledge or awareness about rape, increasing empathy, and reducing victim blaming and belief in rape myths. Alternatively, many programs have shifted toward a more behavioral focus, with the goal of preventing violence before it occurs.

CDC graphic: Stop sexual violence

Graphic from the CDC’s Violence Prevention website.

While changes in attitude may be one necessary component of achieving the goal of primary prevention, a program’s success is measured by its impact on behavioral outcomes (i.e., perpetration or reporting rates.) Attitude is merely a risk factor for sexual violence, and a successful change in attitudinal measures does not necessarily suggest an impact on behavior. There is a meaningful difference in how success is defined between these two approaches: one is to impact a contributing factor, while the other is to impact the behavior itself.

Who is your audience?

It is important to take into account the characteristics of your intended audience. If your intended audience is the campus as a whole, what student groups might be excluded? Events scheduled during the lunch hour, for example, may exclude non-traditional or part-time students who work during the day and take classes in the evening.

Intervention efforts geared toward specific populations which fail to consider intra-group differences and dynamics are less successful (Crenshaw 1991). For example, a session informing a sorority about the available community resources for survivors might suggest that students visit the local rape crisis center; however, if no information is provided regarding the shelter’s disability access, then an attendee with a disability might not similarly benefit from the information. Because the composition of the student population is unique to each campus, it is a good practice to collect and analyze data in order to monitor which groups are actually benefitting from and being represented within programming, and subgroups whose needs are not being addressed.

The type of influence a program intends to have should be considered in determining its intended audience and the key stakeholders who will need to be involved in its successful implementation. The CDC uses a four-level socioecological model to better understand violence and the effect of potential prevention strategies. This model considers the characteristics of the individual, their relationships, their community, and the larger cultural and societal contexts in which they exist, and their unique risks and potential prevention strategies. Comprehensive prevention strategies should focus on risk and protective factors at each of these levels. This figure represents just one example of a coordinated strategy that an institution might adapt. 

Image from 2014 CDC report “Preventing Sexual Violence on College Campuses”

What evidence supports this program?

Most studies assessing the efficacy of sexual assault education programs have focused on attitudinal outcomes, such as knowledge and awareness about rape, belief in rape myths, and victim-blaming beliefs. Studies have shown educational programs are somewhat effective in changing attitudes toward rape and increasing rape knowledge. (Anderson 2005)

In a systematic review of 140 studies the Center for Disease Control found only two programs that demonstrated clear evidence of decreased sexual violence perpetration for program participants, neither of which were developed for IHEs. Each of these programs were community-based strategies which addressed attitudes, social norms, and healthy relationship skills, as well as providing directed outreach to areas of risk that the school had identified on campus. These programs could potentially be adapted to suit the college environment through tailoring the approach to the developmental level of college students, as well as incorporating institutional policies to suit IHEs’ needs.

Part of the challenge of sexual violence prevention is how receptive or resistant students are to the prevention message. It is crucial for sexual violence prevention that programs get participants to really listen to and internalize prevention messages. Programs which place a sense of responsibility and agency for ending sexual violence on all community members have the potential for increased receptivity to the prevention message by providing roles for all community members to play in prevention (Banyard 2004).

For example, the bystander intervention training model focuses on the wider community audience, and its potential role in changing community norms. Its program message does not implicitly or explicitly label participants as victims or perpetrators. Instead, participants are labeled as potential witnesses, bystanders, or allies, thereby decreasing defensiveness toward the prevention material.

Without sufficient research, how should we select our approach?

While research surrounding effective prevention programs may be scarce, theory about building effective prevention programs can be helpful in guiding decision-making.  

The nine “principles of prevention” state that effective prevention strategies are (1) comprehensive; (2) age appropriate; (3) have sufficient dosage (i.e., multiple sessions tend to be better than single sessions); (4) are administered by well-trained staff; (5) are socio-culturally relevant; (6) based in a sound theory of change; (7) build on or support positive relationships (i.e., between the participants and their peers, families, or communities); (8) utilize varied teaching methods; and (9) include outcome evaluation.

To apply these principles to your own campus, it is important to conduct a review of the campus climate to determine how to craft a coordinated programmatic response. Your campus community is unique in its specific combination of risk and protective factors, and the needs and strengths of its student population and community. Students may interact and engage with programming differently across subgroups. Who is your message reaching, and who is it not? Why? How does your intended audience stack up to the actual audience in attendance?

What resources or model materials are there available?

The the federal level, there are two main initiatives which provide resources for sexual violence primary prevention educational programming: The CDC’s Rape Prevention and Education Program provides educational tools and the Sexual Violence Prevention Report, and the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) funds campus prevention programming to help IHEs create effective, comprehensive responses to sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

Furthermore, the campus climate survey developed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics with funding from the OVW in August 2014 is a highly tested instrument. The Final Technical Report describes the development of the survey instrument, and presents the data collected from the pilot test regarding sexual victimization of undergraduate students on the selected 9 campuses.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, RAINN, and your local rape crisis center are all great places to start.

What factors do you consider when planning sexual violence prevention programs? How have you seen success on your campus? Let us know on Twitter @themoderncampus.


Taylor Parker

About the author: Taylor (she/her) is a compliance officer and Deputy Title IX Coordinator located in Florida. She holds a JD from Stetson University College of Law, where she worked extensively at the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy. She has dedicated her career to fighting campus sexual violence through intersectional, comprehensive and justice-oriented means. Learn how we can help get your students involved.