Sexual Violence Prevention: It's Time to Go Big

Dec 12, 2012 | Updated Feb 11, 2013

I hear a lot of stories. Once people find out I'm interested in sexual violence and don't buy into victim-blaming, stories of harassment, molestation and rape just tend to work their way into the conversation. I feel honored to be trusted enough to hear these stories, but I am also very alarmed by their frequency. It is one thing to hear the occasional sensationalized account of rape or sexual abuse in the media, but it is another thing entirely to experience a slow, steady stream of stories from people I know personally and care about. It really gets to me that these things keep happening. And happening. And happening. What are we doing to stop it?

I work with HollabackPHILLY, the Philadelphia branch of an international nonprofit that works to end street harassment (sexual harassment by strangers in public places, like catcalls, staring, following, etc.) through storytelling and activism. Street harassment is one of the most common forms of gender-based violence, often referred to as a "gateway crime" and normalized to the point that we hardly discuss it, despite how seriously it can limit people's access to public space. When I tell people about Hollaback, I usually hear quite a few personal stories of street harassment, but this only comes after I explain what the term "street harassment" means in the first place.

The fact that I have to repeatedly define the term "street harassment" makes it pretty clear that our significant online/social media presence isn't yet having enough of an impact outside of those circles. This is a problem that is far bigger than Hollaback, and speaks to the limitations of online communities in spreading the word on sexual violence (or any form of gender-based violence). Meaningful discussions on these issues online often end up preaching to a choir of people who already know and care about them. Those who aren't a part of one of these circles, or connected to someone who is, do not receive the information. This is a major problem. Violence that affects more than half the population (but truly impacts the whole population) is not a niche interest.

In an effort to get the word out more publicly, HollabackPHILLY is developing a series of PSA ads for the Philadelphia subway system. Around the time we began this project, I started a fellowship with the Center for Progressive Leadership (CPL), which introduced me to the fascinating world of messaging and framing. Hoping for more insights on how to reach people effectively, I read Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff, and The Political Brain by Drew Westen. They were interesting, and made me more curious about how specifically we can frame messages on sexual violence prevention to be most effective. I figured that all I had to do was find a few great examples that would help make sure our PSA effort stays "on message" with whatever the tried-and-true strategies were.

I wanted to know what messages we are getting nationally, through major media outlets, on how to prevent sexual violence, thinking there must be a national PSA campaign or two out there that I was just somehow overlooking. Nope. There aren't any. Have you ever seen one? We see plenty of media coverage of sexual violence, mainly focusing on the sensationalized detail of the assault and how the accused's reputation is affected (Jerry Sandusky, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, etc.), and are fed a steady stream of stories about violent rapes, human trafficking, and sexual abuse via Law & Order: SVU. But if we want to actually stop this, shouldn't there be some prevention messages? The Ad Council (our biggest source of national PSAs -- the force behind Smokey the Bear, Autism Speaks, and Wanda Sykes schooling teenage boys) has done a couple of commendable campaigns related to gender-based violence (specifically, domestic violence and dating violence), but there is nothing out there right now that addresses prevention of sexual violence on a national scale.

Individual nonprofits are doing a lot on their own to get these messages out there -- for example, NSVRC's impressive, research-backed PSA that aired during the recent NASCAR race, which was televised nationally. But this doesn't begin to approach the level of media presence needed to break the silence on a national scale.

A big part of the problem is money. Nonprofits that work on sexual violence issues don't have lots of extra funds to spend on methods that they lack capacity to evaluate, and the taboo nature of sexual violence (or sexual health, for that matter) doesn't make companies eager to capitalize on cause-based marketing (like the Pink Lemonade 5-Hour Energy breast cancer awareness campaign). The Ad Council does great work arranging pro-bono campaign development and donated media, but the nonprofits and federal agencies it partners with are still responsible for covering certain hard costs. When organizations are shedding jobs and struggling to keep rape crisis centers, sexual abuse resource centers, and domestic violence shelters open, dedicating funding to PSA campaigns is not the priority.

Continuing to approach public information campaigns in a piecemeal fashion just isn't going to cut it. Sexual violence is a systemic problem, and this means prevention must also be systematic, organized around a few unified, strategic messages. This means two things: investing money in strategic, effective framing research (this is a particularly difficult subject to frame, as indicated by the FrameWorks Institute's recent report), and taking a hard look at the current, donated-media model. It is rare to see any meaningful treatment of sexual violence, or even sexual health, in offline, mass media sources, which may mean some extra effort to establish buy-in. As far as cause marketing goes, it remains to be seen whether companies would be willing to support such an effort.

As a culture, we understand that sexual violence is wrong. We just don't like to think of it as a mainstream problem. Unfortunately, it is a mainstream problem, and we need to refocus the public conversation to begin to change that. Thousands of organizations are doing important work on sexual violence prevention through increased education and policy change. Adding powerful, effective marketing to the mix would go a long way towards creating a population that is familiar with the messages and invested in change.