Prevention Lessons: Spotlight on Steubenville

Picture this: A high school party, lots of alcohol, star football players, and a young, unconscious girl.  A recipe for disaster, some might say.  

This is how the scene played out in Steubenville, OH, last August.  High school football stars allegedly sexually assaulted a 16-year-old unconscious girl at an end-of-summer party.  Horrible?  Absolutely!  But not everyone was quick to jump to the defense of this young girl.  In fact, many people were quick to side with the football stars and blame the victim for “putting herself in that position.” Really?  Have we not evolved as a human race?  It makes me wonder. 

I think about why these victim-blaming attitudes exist and I don’t have to look very far.  For years, we’ve inundated our kids with “prevention” messages telling them not to take rides from strangers, not to accept candy from strangers, don’t walk by yourself at night, watch out for the creepy guy in the bushes, watch your drink, and learn self-defense so you can fight back.  What do all of these messages have in common?  Those to which the messages are targeted (children, young people, women) are solely responsible for their own safety.

Where are the messages saying respect other people and their boundaries, don’t touch anyone without their consent (news flash: unconscious people are incapable of consenting), keep your darn hands to your darn self, if you see someone being hurt or violated in any way, use your phone to call for help NOT to take pictures or videos of the event?!

Our focus on programs and campaigns that are solely based on risk reduction, therefore putting the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on the targeted individual, has led society to believe that it is the victim’s fault if anything happens to them.  Now, more than ever, we need to look at ways to prevent sexual violence BEFORE it happens and challenge the current social norms that allow sexual violence to exist in the first place.  What does this look like?  Here are some ideas:

Providing kids, from a very young age, with the knowledge and skills they need for developing healthy relationships.  Providing skills-based education on how to become an engaged bystander and recognize early warning signs of abusive behavior.  Youth-led education that fosters social change. Community mobilization efforts that focus on creating safe neighborhoods and schools. Developing skills for confronting oppression.  Talking early and often about healthy sexuality.

As the case in Ohio heads to court this week, I urge you to think of ways we can challenge the victim-blaming attitudes and approaches with positive and clear prevention messages. Check out the great video below from Project Unspoken.  What would you add?  Please share by commenting below.