On the road toward prevention: What advocates need to know about how sexual violence is framed

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"Believe women." "Me too." "Time's up."

Sexual assault is in the spotlight now more than ever as conversations about its pervasiveness — and what can be done to address it — unfold on a national stage. Like other widespread public health and social justice problems, sexual violence is preventable. But many people don't realize that because the messages we receive about sexual violence often leave us with the impression that the issue is too large and too complex to do anything about it.

A Berkeley Media Studies Group news analysis found that media coverage of sexual violence often focuses on details of a violent act, or what happens after the fact, but rarely addresses what can be done to prevent this violence. And journalists aren't the only ones who struggle to communicate about prevention.

"Practitioners and experts tend to be really good at talking about how to respond to assaults and support survivors after the fact," said Pamela Mejia, BMSG's head of research. "But it's harder to communicate about the changes we need to make in our schools and businesses and workplaces and communities to prevent harassment, abuse, and assault from happening in the first place."

So, how can advocates, practitioners — anyone who wants to play a role in prevention — get better at communicating about it? Framing is a big part of the answer. Before we can educate the public about what it means to prevent sexual abuse and assault, we need to understand the background against which people form their opinions about sexual violence and how to prevent it. There are no blank slates: People already have their own ideas and beliefs about sexual violence. These points of view come from mental structures known as cognitive frames, which develop as a result of personal experiences, cultural norms, and media narratives.

Nearly six years ago, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center called BMSG to ask if we could help them reframe sexual violence to focus on prevention. This question marked the start of a five-year journey, involving meetings with experts, a listening tour, and extensive research, which culminated in "Moving Toward Prevention: A Guide for Reframing Sexual Violence." The resource, developed with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, summarizes best practices in framing sexual violence, examines how the media portray the issue, and provides tools and resources to help shift the conversation toward prevention.

Here are some of the most common frames about sexual violence, many of which, unfortunately, may make people less open to receiving messages about prevention. Knowing these potential roadblocks and preparing for them can help keep us on track to communicating effectively about prevention.

Common frames about sexual violence

Isolated, terrible — but inevitable — incidents:
Sexual violence is part of a continuum of behaviors that can sometimes culminate in extreme violence or assault — but that may not. People feel uncomfortable, anxious, and disgusted when they think or talk about sexual violence, and many doubt it can be prevented. These strong emotions can make them avoid thinking or talking about the problem, so they're less open to discussing how to solve it — especially if they think there aren't any tangible ways to act on that anxiety to make things better. Clearly describing what prevention looks like and providing concrete examples of prevention in action can help people overcome these obstacles.

People who commit sexual violence are "bad apples" who can't be changed:
For years, prevention experts have pointed out that sexual violence isn't a crime committed just by "the monster in the bushes" but, instead, by the people we know and trust. There's still a lot of resistance to that idea, though. One barrier that may keep people from accepting this reality is the belief that once someone commits sexual violence, their path is set. People have trouble believing that a person can change their own behavior or stop harming others. One way to counter this frame is by showing that intervening early can change a person's behavior.

Sexual violence is too big a problem to solve:
People feel powerless when they think about trying to address a problem as big as sexual violence. That overwhelmed feeling can lead to fatalism — the view that sexual violence is just an unfortunate part of life. We can help people overcome that fatalism and sense of overwhelm when we model the journeys that people take to make prevention part of their lives and their work — whoever and wherever they are. For example, a journey can be as simple as telling stories about people whose starting point is discomfort, or who once believed that sexual violence is "just something that happens." Then, we can show what motivated these people to act to prevent abuse and assault in their institution and describe what they did.

Disconnection from prevention:
Some people have negative reactions to vague examples of prevention programming and messaging. For example, certain terms like "rape culture" or "toxic masculinity" distance people from prevention practices they actually agree with. These kinds of terms make many people think they have to adhere to a certain belief system in order to play a role in preventing sexual violence. Using plain language with concrete examples is much more effective in helping audiences to understand complex ideas and consider the possibility of preventing sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. So instead of "rape culture," you could talk about messages society sends about sex, violence, and what it means to be a man or a woman.

The role and responsibility of institutions in preventing sexual violence is murky:
Institutions can be effective at preventing sexual violence, but many people doubt this. Perhaps they have been through unsuccessful efforts to prevent violence in the organizations where they work or study. Or perhaps beliefs around family and personal responsibility prevent them from seeing a role for institutions in solving what they see as a family or personal problem. Whatever the reason, when we show what successful institutional prevention approaches look like, we can help counter this frame and alleviate doubt or concern about whether prevention is possible.

Though most of these frames work against efforts to communicate about sexual violence prevention, there is some good news: Most people have a strong desire to protect others, to provide the best possible support to the people around them, and to keep young people and vulnerable people safe, nurtured, and supported. Advocates can build on these widely shared values to boost prevention efforts and make prevention messages stronger.

"Preventing problems as big as sexual harassment, abuse, and assault can feel overwhelming," Mejia said. "But after five years of being immersed in sexual violence prevention, I'm surer than ever that we can make prevention part of our schools, our workplaces — every part of our communities. I hope that anyone who wants to make the case for prevention and why it matters will find this guide to be a helpful resource for communicating about preventing sexual violence."

For more information on framing sexual violence prevention, tips for developing effective messages and responding to hard questions, and guidance for engaging with the media, view the full report: "Moving Toward Prevention: A Guide for Reframing Sexual Violence." And check out our media relations toolkit, developed with our partners at NSVRC, for further guidance on engaging the media to elevate sexual violence prevention.

Want to learn more about how to put this research into action? Join us for a live event October 11 at noon PT (3 p.m. ET); NSVRC staff will be talking with BMSG's Head of Research, Pamela Mejia, about ways to reframe sexual harassment, abuse, and assault and communicate more effectively about prevention.

Have you seen examples of effective sexual violence prevention framing — or reframing — in the news or elsewhere? We would love to hear from you! Get in touch with us at info@bmsg.org@BMSG, or on Facebook.

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