Comprehensive approaches can change the norms that drive sexual harassment and violence.
The still-unfolding stories—across all industries and sectors—only confirm what too many of us already know: sexual violence and harassment are pervasive at all levels of our society.
While a national discussion is underway about critical issues like holding perpetrators accountable for their actions and supporting survivors, there has been less emphasis on preventing sexual harassment and assault before it happens—and almost no analysis that looks beyond workplace harassment policies to broader community policies and organizational changes.
To get to the root of the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault, we need to look at the norms that shape our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, and influence our sense of what’s acceptable and not acceptable within a community or society at large. A few years ago, Prevention Institute identified a set of norms that increase the risk of sexual violence and harassment:
- Association of masculinity with control (e.g., “No means try harder.”)
- Association of femininity with compliance (e.g., “Go along to get along.”)
- Acceptance of abuse of power (e.g., “What do you expect? That’s what strong leaders do.”)
- Tolerance of aggression and violence (e.g., “But he’s our star athlete…”)
- Sexual violence as a private problem, not a public concern (e.g., “It’s none of my business.”)
These norms interact with and exacerbate one another. Powerful individuals in government, entertainment, sports, the media, and other highly visible arenas of public life can reinforce these damaging norms, for instance, by objectifying women, blaming victims, and acting in aggressive and abusive ways, thereby enabling others to act out in similar ways.
A Call to Action
It doesn’t have to be this way. When we understand the cultural forces that make sexual violence and harassment so widespread in our society, we can see more clearly what needs to change and what strategies will be most effective.
Norms can and do change. We only need to think of the shift from smoke-filled workplaces, restaurants, and airplanes to the largely smoke-free air we breathe today to see how much change is possible. We need this kind of sea change in norms when it comes to sexual violence and harassment. We need to move from norms that promote inequalities of power to equity; from tolerance of abuse to accountability and justice; and from rigid and harmful norms of masculinity and femininity to a more expansive understanding of gender, rooted in respect for each human being to live free from harassment and coercion.
In our new blog, Together, we can change norms to prevent sexual violence and harassment, Prevention Institute has listed examples of strategies to prevent sexual violence and harassment across the Spectrum of Prevention:
- Influencing policy and legislation
- Changing organizational practices
- Fostering coalitions and networks
- Educating providers
- Promoting community education
- Strengthening individual knowledge and skills
We invite you to read our blog and help us add to and elaborate on the strategies we describe. Changing the norms that breed sexual harassment and violence is going to require all of us to work together and think big about how to implement long-term, comprehensive prevention efforts that transform our very culture. Please send suggestions, comments, and questions to email@example.com.
For a deeper dive, read Sexual Violence and the Spectrum of Prevention: Towards a Community Solution. This National Sexual Violence Resource Center publication, written by Prevention Institute, provides advocates, practitioners, and educators with a guide for developing a comprehensive community approach to primary prevention of sexual violence. Additionally, Changing Community Environments to Prevent Sexual Violence is a book chapter that was originally published in The Prevention of Sexual Violence: A Practitioner's Sourcebook, edited by Keith L. Kaufman. It describes how community-based efforts can use the Spectrum of Prevention to maximize impact and presents detailed examples of successful strategies.