This College Student Alliance Aims to End Sexual Assault Before It Happens


The end of April marked the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, in which educators, activists, survivors, and other people capable of experiencing common sense came together to create strategies and communities that end sexual violence. But in many cases, April came too late for lasting or impactful change. For many people, April came after their assault, after their friend's assault, or after they themselves committed an assault. That is why it's important, as we move from one SAAM to the next, that we continue to start dialogue and educate the huddled masses through primary prevention.

Primary prevention is one of a handful of strategies put forward to end sexual violence — and it's the only strategy which stops it before it starts. By moving "upstream," educators and activists cut off rape culture at its roots before it has a chance to manifest in another victimization "downstream." Primary prevention efforts can include community-wide seminars on healthy sexuality and consent, growing awareness about the sexual violence epidemic at hand in this country, and peer education about healthy relationships, among other strategies. 

I dove into primary prevention when I came to doing this work. It just made sense: as someone with an academic background in women's issues, I was used to seeking out where the devaluing of women begins, and when I began tackling issues of rape the empowerment piece came most naturally to me. Thus, (con)sensual was born: a peer-to-peer, student-created (me!) and student-led (me and my friends!) effort at American University to educate and build awareness around consent, boundaries, and communication during sex as a route to ending "grey rape," as well as destroying the notion that there is any "grey area" between sex and rape at all.

There are many other examples of primary prevention in the mainstream: the work of Men Can Stop Rape is primary prevention, the "Don't Be That Guy" campaign in Canada is primary prevention, and the efforts of the Date Safe Project are primary prevention. And the reason so many advocates and organizations rely on primary prevention isn't just because it makes sense. It's because it works.

In 1996, Peggy Sanday wrote, on the topic of "rape free versus rape prone" campus communities:

"I defined a rape-prone society as one in which the incidence of rape is reported by observers to be very high, or rape is excused as a ceremonial expression of masculinity, or rape is an act by which men are allowed to punish or threaten women. I defined a rape-free society as one in which the act of rape is either infrequent or does not occur … not to suggest that rape was entirely absent in a given society but as a label to indicate that sexual aggression is socially disapproved and punished severely."

To find ourselves in a rape-free world, we need to build a rape-free culture. It sounds hard, and it is complex, but really the first step is speaking definitively and publicly about what rape and sexual assault are, what happy and healthy sex can look like, what sexual rights you are endowed as a human being with human agency, and why nothing but consensual, hot, crazy sex is going to be tolerated on this planet. Education is often the key to an entirely new world. It's hard not to imagine how better efforts to talk to young people, and boys and men in particular, about sexual violence could have changed the lives of Rehtaeh Parsons, Jane Doe, and the 1 in 4 women being assaulted on college campuses nationwide every day. The impact of primary prevention, including a wide assortment of techniques and utilizing various tools, remains consistent. Primary prevention is what could have changed or saved those lives.

What we know is that a wide range of primary prevention strategies minimize risk, lower sexual assault rates, and change behaviors and minds. Academically, the research points us in that direction. Angela Borges, Victoria Banyard, and Mary Moynihan found that positive information (discussing consent, sex, and relationships instead of rape, assault, and violence) gave people more incentive to really challenge their preconceived notions, and also stated that interactive educational programs led to better grasps on concepts and ideas. Elena Klaw and a team of other social scientists found that "comprehensive rape education also serves as consciousness raising, engendering transformations in thought and behavior." J. D. Foubert and K.A. Marriott found that primary prevention strategies led to reductions in participants' belief in rape myths, created a more aware bystander culture, and increased men's participation in the movement to end rape. And in cities like Vancouver, recent data shows assaults are decreasing due to educational efforts.

To find ourselves in a rape-free world, we need to take the first step.

It's as simple as opening our mouths and our minds.