My previous blog on consent touched briefly on the topic of power differentials conferred by hierarchical social positions, which I think warrants further examination on how it impacts sexual violence prevention. Interventions that target individual actions, behaviors, and knowledge are known as risk-reduction strategies. Such strategies rely on the individual capacity to protect oneself from potentially harmful environmental factors or community settings. Primary prevention, informed by the public health perspective, attempts to create change at a broader social level by addressing the root causes of violence. This means taking on bigger, broader, entrenched factors of systemic privilege and oppression.
Typically, social positions are constructed on a binary, creating a hierarchy between the “dominant” group and the “other” group, the latter of which encompasses everyone who does not fit clearly within the boundaries of the dominant group. Examples of dominant groups include broad categories like White, straight, male, Christian, or able-bodied. Dominant groups have identity and thus status and power. Another synonym for this is privilege. Groups with privilege use power to oppress people without privilege. That doesn’t mean that all individuals belonging to a dominant group oppress all people that don’t belong to that group; what it means is that we all contribute to a system of privilege and oppression in which the use of power to benefit some at the cost of others has become the norm. Sucks, doesn’t it?
Group identities also tell us who matters, how much, and why. This significantly impacts the effectiveness of risk reduction strategies because it creates narrowly defined notions of the “ideal victim” and who deserves help. People at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, like trans women of color, are less likely to receive a supportive, coordinated response from systems of care because systems of oppression prevent that from happening. Folks that occupy identities with low social value become targets for more concentrated victim blaming, which is made worse by risk reduction techniques that suggest all people have the power to prevent their own victimization.
By focusing on individual actions and responsibility, risk reduction strategies serve as a red herring that facilitates victim blaming and detracts attention from the larger question of why violence occurs in the first place. Self-defense classes, being aware of your surroundings and not accepting drinks from strangers suggest that individuals can take precautions to effectively prevent others from perpetrating against them. So when sexual violence does occur, victim blaming focuses on these behaviors as evidence that the individual was not responsible enough to prevent assault. Ongoing discussions of risk reduction strategies hinder prevention efforts by directing attention away from the bigger questions. Rather than asking individuals to protect themselves from their environment, why don’t we just make the environment and community safer? Understanding the causes and contributing factors of violent behavior is what will ultimately help create a community environment in which everyone benefits together and risk reduction strategies become irrelevant.