Sexual Assault Prevention Programs: A Solution Riddled With Problems

Sexual assault is finally being recognized as a problem. According to Rape, Abuse, and Incest Nation Network, “one in six women [have] been the victim of attempted or completed rape.” The rise of sexual assault awareness is correlated with the rise of the #MeToo movement, a 10-year-old movement that has recently gained awareness due to landmark events. An inciting event of the movement was The New York Times investigation about Harvey Weinstein and the multiple allegations of sexual assault against him. 

Photo credit: Ms. Magazine

Universities in the United States have finally started to take action to combat the problem of sexual violence on campus by creating sexual assault prevention programs. While these programs are well-intentioned and often hailed as the holy grail solution to sexual violence, universities’ sexual assault prevention programs often lead to victim-blaming and contribute to rape culture by conflating sexual assault with alcohol consumption and through their depiction of ‘prevention strategies’ outlined for potential victims. Programs often lack a focus on predators themselves and how to stop predatory actions from occurring. 

Sexual assault prevention programs are often taught along with alcohol education programs. This correlates the issue of sexual assault with alcohol consumption. For example, before coming to Boston University, all incoming freshmen are required to complete an AlcoholEdu and Sexual Misconduct Prevention Training. The goal of the AlcoholEdu program is to educate students about the consequences of drinking and promote responsible drinking habits, whereas the goal for the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Training is to completely prevent sexual assault. Here is where the issue lies.


Photo credit: Boston University Student Health Services

Photo credit: Boston University Student Health Services

Society often views the consumption of alcohol in college as a natural occurrence. While students should be careful about the consequences of consuming alcohol, it is generally a phenomenon that will always occur. When students turn 21, they are legally allowed to consume alcohol. Sexual assault is different. It is a crime that is always illegal and unethical and there is no reason for assaulting someone.  Furthermore, ‘textbook’ sexual assault scenarios in these courses often include victims consuming alcohol or drugs, despite the fact sexual assault can happen without the presence of drugs or alcohol and is never the victim’s fault. 

By teaching alcohol prevention programs along with side sexual assault prevention programs, Boston University is sending the wrong message. It promotes the idea that while sexual assault is bad, it is a natural occurrence in college similar to how people view underage drinking. The university is telling you not to assault someone but does not genuinely believe the problem will go away, just like they do not believe that college students will stop consuming alcohol. 

This mentality regarding sexual violence actively contributes to rape culture: the societal idea that rape is going to happen and that the only way to stop rape is to teach victims how to protect themselves. Rape culture leads into victim-blaming, which is the belief that it is a victim's fault if they get raped, rather than the sexual predator themselves. 

Photo credit: WNYC Studios

Many sexual assault prevention programs outline risk factors for experiencing sexual assault. This means they are telling victims how to avoid sexual assault, rather than blaming sexual predators for their horrific actions. These messages consist of suggestions like girls should travel in groups, never set your drink down at a party, never consume communal drinks (punch bowls, etc.), and do not drink too much. 

While this advice might make sense on the surface (for example, it is probably a good idea to monitor your alcohol consumption), no amount of alcohol, traveling behavior or where someone places their drink, allows someone to be raped. 

No one should have to live their life following these cautionary guidelines. These guidelines do not guarantee that sexual predators will not come after an individual. At the end of the day, risk factors should not be discussed, but instead, we should examine why sexual predators act the way they do and how to control their actions. 

According to the World Health Organization, sexual assault is not about sexual desire but rather power and control; sexual assault prevention programs should zero in on this. If sexual predators have a desire for dominance, sexual assault prevention programs should focus on suggesting other healthy outlets for predators to express their dominance in non-harmful ways. 

Sexual assault prevention programs should also use fear tactics to stop sexual predators. These programs should emphasize that sexual predators will be punished for their actions and will not be able to get away with their crimes. Although sexual predators may still have the same desires, it will stop them from acting on these desires, as they are afraid of the consequences.

Boston University’s program called Step Up Step In BU (SUSIBU), created by the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center (SARP) is a step in the right direction for sexual assault prevention programs. The program outlines what consent is and how to ask for consent, a skill that many students are lacking. The program also outlines bystander intervention strategies and explores what rape culture is and why it is a problem. Additionally, SARP’s program called “Sex is Like Pizza” promotes sex positivity. Sex positivity removes the stigma around consensual sex, which allows students to have safer, consensual sex. 


Photo credit: Boston University Student Health Services

The intention of a sexual assault prevention program is noble; however, the execution is flawed. The emphasis on risk factors and its correlation with alcohol consumption leads to victim-blaming and actively contributes to rape culture. 

Further emphasis should be placed on the punishments for sexual violence, the behavioral tendencies of sexual predators, and how to help sexual predators before they commit a crime that can have deep physical and psychological consequences on someone for the rest of their life. 


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