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Using Risk and Protective Factors in Prevention

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(This blog post is the second post written to supplement the Risk and Protective Factors Infographic. You can find the first post here.)

When we created this risk and protective factors infographic, everyone kept talking about specific examples we have seen play out in our communities. I really like examples, and find them especially helpful when I’m trying to learn a new theory or concept – like, what does that look like in real life? Show me how it works! Give me some examples that I can put into my brain to mull over.

This means that in my own work, I am always incorporating examples – they give us a way to explore concepts and see how they could apply to our own work, while also being just removed enough from our actual lives to allow us to critically analyze what we see. So for today’s blog post, I offer you two examples of how risk and protective factors, along with social determinants of health, could look in our field of sexual assault prevention.

Example 1

Dolores knows that her church community cares about children’s health and safety, so she worked with her local Latinx community center and her nearby sexual assault service agency to create a culturally specific discussion series for parents at her mostly Latinx church. Through the series, parents learned how to talk with their kids about consent and healthy behavior, and the kids played games to learn about important historical figures. This series concluded in a community-wide fiesta. Church leaders also invited feedback from the sexual assault services agency staff and the local Latinx community center staff. The feedback helped the church restructure its leadership to be reflective of the communities they serve. They also used the feedback to update their staff and volunteer trainings for healthy behavior expectations.

What can we learn from this example? The overall prevention program met the needs of the church, who wanted to increase safety for children; the sexual assault agency, who wanted to increase parents’ skills in talking to their children about consent; and the Latin@/x community center, who wanted to increase cultural pride and connectedness. The program counters risk factors related to poor parent-child relationships and community tolerance of sexual violence and focuses on social determinants of health like highlighting positive cultural norms, attitudes, and expectations and building social support within the church community.  

My biggest takeaway from this example is that we don’t have to work alone – we can partner with others working in our communities to get us all closer to our shared goals. In this example, each group is bringing their specific expertise together to create a program (and church behavior policies) that are truly community specific. Working together around shared risk and protective factors can be an effective way to stretch limited funding, strengthen partnerships, and increase reach.

Example 2

The sexual assault services agency Amari works with has dedicated new funding to expand their prevention services to nearby rural areas. Because Amari is not a member of the largely indigenous rural community, they spend time getting to know the community – attending public events, getting coffee with local elders and leaders, and participating in other community-building efforts. During one-on-one conversations with community members, Amari learns that the most pressing issue is a widespread lack of running water and phone service. The community has been working to get these services back, and Amari knows that their prevention efforts need to focus on helping the community get these essential services restored.

I’ve shared this example with countless groups, and usually I get a question right away – “What does helping restore people’s water and phone service have to do with sexual assault prevention?” To answer, let’s look at the infographic – this work bolsters the community-level protective factors of community support/connectedness as well as coordination of resources and services among community agencies when we work in partnership with others. It also moves toward improving social determinants of health like socioeconomic conditions and built environment, like the insides and outsides of buildings, the layout, and lighting.

Essential utilities like water and phone service are important components of a healthy community, and the fact that these services are distributed unequally within the community ties into the oppression that many native and indigenous communities have experienced and are still experiencing. My biggest takeaway from this example is that while Amari is not a part of the community they want to work with, they do some essential things – they take the time to get to know the community, participating in and amplifying the community’s work, and they shape their prevention efforts to work in true collaboration with the community.

It is common for mainstream sexual assault agencies to want to work in communities they are not part of, often out of a desire to reach those on the margins or because of new funding opportunities – and honestly, those of us in mainstream programs or workplaces are not always the best people to do this work. While Amari does a good job of forming a real relationship with the community and ends up with a community-specific prevention program, two good options to explore are hiring someone from the community to lead these prevention efforts, or funding the community directly to do this work.

Because primary prevention aims to prevent sexual violence before it even has a chance to happen, we must influence all the areas that shape our beliefs and values.

Because primary prevention aims to prevent sexual violence before it even has a chance to happen, we must influence all the areas that shape our beliefs and values. This means that focusing on societal issues like pay equity, racism, and healthy communities are important ways we can work to prevent sexual violence. Sometimes it can be difficult to make this connection for people who are not as familiar with sexual assault prevention, or who do not understand the ways that oppression is inextricably linked with sexual violence.

Connecting our prevention efforts to risk and protective factors as well as social determinants of health helps show that our work is based in evidence. Like the image of spider’s silk that I talked about in my previous blog post, risk and protective factors can help us build the web of effective prevention. I hope that this infographic is helpful for you in the ways you shape your own prevention work – if you want to talk about it more, reach out! I’d love to hear the ways that you are using risk and protective factors in your own work.