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Sexual Violence and Oppression: Framing Our Work Using the Sexual Violence Continuum

Graphic showingsocial norms in a circle, representing the sexual violence continuum

Welcome to the first post in our Putting it into Practice: Diversity and Inclusion in Prevention blog series. The goal of this series is to highlight the work that folks are doing in to prioritize diversity and inclusivity in their prevention efforts. Our first blog was written by Mo Lewis, NSVRC’s Prevention Specialist. 

I’ve facilitated a lot of trainings over the years, and when I say (as I do in every training) that sexual violence is inextricably linked to oppression – and that we won’t ever end sexual violence without ending all forms of oppression – I sometimes see a raised hand. Someone will tell me they don’t think we should dilute our work by “bringing anti-oppression into it.” 

I can understand where the frustration comes from. It’s taken such a long time to get to a place where we can have public conversations about sexual violence, we are all so busy, and there’s so much still to do. Yet here’s the truth: we cannot ignore where we are today and how we got here. 

We cannot disregard the way our current systems and institutions were created to perpetuate inequality, and the ways that this shapes our current lives, and the experience of sexual violence. There is just no way to end sexual violence without being able to grapple with and work toward undoing these harms – truly moving upstream in our prevention; and if this does not resonate with you, then I invite you to think about your own standing within these systems, and where you may need to learn more and expand your understanding. This is a daily practice for me, as a person who holds both privileged and not-privileged identities. One of the false gifts of privilege is being able to choose whether to think about things like inequity and oppression. It’s a false gift because we are actually missing out on so much, including the ability to frame our work within the context of our shared lives and differing experiences.  We can help counter that false gift by always framing our prevention work as inextricably tied to anti-oppression.

Sexual violence continuum graphic

The most helpful tool I use for this framing is the Re-Visioned Sexual Violence Continuum, created by Lydia Guy in 2006. You can read her words about why she created the continuum in the link above, which also includes the visual of the continuum. 

This continuum is a circle, which is different than the traditional wave or line shape of the continuum. Six circles representing different forms of oppression overlap each other in the middle, with different forms of sexual violence spiraling out into a circle. One large circle encompasses all this, representing societal norms. Guy says, “My hope is that by providing a visual conception of the continuum that is more inclusive, of class, race, disability status, sexual orientation and anti-Semitism in addition to gender that it will remind and inspire us to develop a vision of comprehensive sexual violence prevention work which routinely encompasses all forms of oppression” (Guy, 2006, p. 6).

So here’s the way I like to use this continuum in my work. 

A big portion of my job is training. Every training I do is customized for the needs of the state, territory, or local prevention program – except for the first 30-60 minutes. That part is always the same. Our prevention team begins each workshop or training with a framing component so that everyone in the room – no matter their level of knowledge or experience – has a shared base of knowledge and language about prevention to use moving through the day. We cover “What is Primary Prevention?” as well as prevention theories like the Social Ecological Model, the 9 Principles of Effective Prevention Programs, and the Public Health Model.

Then we talk about the sexual violence continuum. We show a more “traditional” version of the continuum, and then share the re-visioned continuum, pass out copies, and ask what differences people notice. This is where sometimes we will encounter skepticism, but more often than not, there are nodding heads, and occasional snaps. People notice the many forms of oppression that are overlapping; how they feed into the wide ranging list of sexual violence types that spiral out from the center; and the thick circles labeled “norms” that hold it all together. They say that it makes sense; that it’s inclusive in ways that other continuums are not. This is the document that people most ask me to share with them after a training. 

While this is a valuable framing tool for our work, I do make sure to bring up two ways that sharing this continuum with individuals and communities may not be helpful. Because only six forms of oppression are specified in the center circles (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, anti-Semitism, ableism), it could inadvertently leave people out when they do not see their identity reflected in the resource. And because the different forms of violence spiral out from the center, ending with “rape/murder,” it is possible that it could feed into someone’s incorrect beliefs that one form of violence is categorically worse than another – that what happened “wasn’t that bad” because of where it is located on the spiral. It is up to every prevention educator to determine the best ways to share resources and information with the people they are working with – and I have heard of this resource opening up important conversations in prevention groups about how oppression contributes to sexual violence in their community, which is exactly why Guy created it.  

Now that you know how I use this continuum in my own work, I’d love to hear from you. What tools or resources do you use to frame the connections between oppression and sexual violence in your work? 

 

Guy, L. (2006, Fall). Re-visioning the sexual violence continuum. Partners in Social Change. Retrieved from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape: https://pcar.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdfs/re-visioning-the-sexual-violence-continuum.pdf.  

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