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History of Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Image of two teal ribbons on a cloth background

History of Sexual Assault Awareness Month2019 marks the official 18th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month — but did you know we can trace its history even longer?

Even before its official declaration, SAAM was about both awareness and prevention of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. Looking at the history of the movement to end sexual violence, it’s clear why: It’s impossible to prevent an issue no one knows about, and it’s difficult to make people aware of a problem without providing a solution. The two work in tandem, and they always have. From the civil rights movement to the founding of the first rape crisis centers to national legislation and beyond, the roots of SAAM run deep.

Roots of the Movement

As long as there have been people who care about making the world a better place, there have been individuals advocating for sexual assault prevention. In the United States, movements for social change and equality began to gain traction in the 1940s and 50s with the civil rights era. Although open discussion of the realities of sexual assault and domestic violence were limited at these times, activists for equal rights began to challenge the status quo.

Efforts during this time were championed by Black women and women of color. Advocates like Rosa Parks worked at the intersections of race-based and gender-based violence (a framework that years later in 1989, advocate and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw would call “intersectionality”).

Wide social activism around the issue of sexual assault continued into the 1970s, bringing with it support for survivors and heightened awareness. The first rape crisis center was founded in San Francisco in 1971, the same city where the first U.S. Take Back the Night event was held seven years later. 

Women wearing all white marching in the street and carrying a banner that says "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex"
Women's Equal Rights Parade, 1977 (Library of Congress)

The following decades mobilized survivors and advocates to call for legislation and funding that would support survivors, such as the Violence Against Women Act of 1993 (VAWA).

Monumental changes like VAWA demonstrated that national efforts promoting sexual violence prevention were needed. Even before SAAM was first nationally observed in 2001, advocates had been holding events, marches, and observances related to sexual violence during the month of April, sometimes during a week-long “Sexual Assault Awareness Week.”   

People gathered around a table at a community event with a sign that reads "Rape Crisis Council"
The Rape Crisis Council for the Lehigh Valley holds an event, 1980

In an effort to further coordinate awareness and prevention efforts, in 2000, the newly launched National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Resource Sharing Project polled sexual violence coalitions. They asked organizations about their preferred color, symbol, and month for sexual assault awareness activities. The results showed that those in the movement preferred a teal ribbon as a symbol for sexual assault awareness, and SAAM as we know it was born.

NSVRC’s Role

For advocates at state coalitions, college campuses, or other community organizations, funding and time are often barriers to developing campaigns or resources related to awareness and prevention. That is why, each year, NSVRC coordinates a national SAAM campaign complete with the resources, graphics, and tools needed to hold an event or otherwise raise awareness.

Each year, NSVRC solicits feedback on SAAM, asking constituents about preferred topics to focus on. This feedback then informs the creation of the theme, which spans from the slogan to the design elements to the type of resources created. Once those resources and supplies are created, NSVRC shares them with a wide range of state, territory, and local organizations working to end sexual violence as well as individuals who want to make change in their communities.

Awareness & Prevention

Poster themes: "Decide to End Sexual Violence" and "It's About Time to Prevent Sexual Violence"
Left to right: Posters from 2003, 2005, and 2006

In the early 2000s, the primary goal of SAAM was awareness — both raising visibility of the teal ribbon and the meaning behind it. By the mid-2000s, SAAM incorporated prevention more heavily, focusing on areas such as communities, workplaces, and college campuses. These campaigns discussed ways that individuals and communities can stop sexual assault before it happens by changing behaviors and promoting respect.

Three posters from previous SAAM campaigns. The themes are "Prevent Sexual Violence in our Communities," "Prevent Sexual Violence in our workplaces," and "Respect Works."
Left to right: Posters from 2007, 2008, and 2009

These two goals of awareness and prevention carried over into the 2010s, laying the groundwork for the SAAM that we see today. While each campaign has a different theme, they all share same common goals: to raise visibility about sexual assault and share how it can be prevented, whether that’s through education about healthy sexuality, consent, or bystander intervention. 

Previous SAAM materials: a CD cover, water bottles that say "Sexual Assault Awareness Month" in English and Spanish, a poster that says "It's time...to get involved," and stickers that say "It's time...to talk about ____!" and "Es hora...de hablar sobre_____"
A CD from the 2010 campaign, water bottles from the 2011 campaign, the poster from the 2011 campaign, and stickers from 2013.

Expanding Audiences

In more recent years, SAAM has focused on bringing in audiences beyond advocates — those who may not realize they play an important role in preventing sexual violence. Recent resources have focused on how people like parents, faith leaders, and coaches can become agents of change, while sharing the practical things each of us can do to prevent sexual assault.

Posters with the themes: "It's time to act," "Prevention is possible," "Engaging New Voices," "Your voice has power," and "I ask for consent"
Top row from left: Mailers from 2015 and 2016, poster from 2017. Bottom row from left: Posters from 2018 and 2019

SAAM has also branched out to Spanish-speaking audiences as well, with campaigns in recent years that include Spanish content. Whether that’s resources that cover the same information from the English campaign in Spanish, a different theme and style of resources, or a combination of the two, SAAM en español has helped even more communities get involved in prevention.

Spanish SAAM content: "Es mi cuerpo, son mis derechos," "Yo te creo," "Quien es afectada despues de la violencia sexual," "Hablar sobre la sexualidad sana con su adolescente a cada paso," and "No tengas miedo de decir no"
Clockwise from left: Poster from 2018, palm card from 2017, brochure from 2018, palm card from 2017, coloring page from 2018

The Future of SAAM

The history of SAAM has shown us that, no matter what, those who want to end sexual assault and abuse will always find ways to advocate for awareness and prevention. Looking forward, we can be sure that SAAM will continue to grow and adapt, reaching even more audiences with the message that a world free of sexual assault and abuse is possible.
 

 

Topic Sexual Assault Awareness Month