April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The observance grew out of initial Take Back the Night rallies from the 1970s that aimed to shine a spotlight on the types of violence women encountered while walking at night. Our understanding of sexual assault has grown over the past few decades, as we became aware of the fact that, contrary to what we thought in the early days of the movement, most sexual violence happens indoors and is perpetrated not by a scary stranger on a dark street, but rather by people we often know and trust. The activities conducted throughout the month focus on the different types of sexual violence both women and men encounter.
The sensitivity of the topic makes sexual assault a challenging issue for health communicators to tackle. However, given that 1 in 5 women will be victims of rape in their lifetime, it is an essential topic to address. Typically, sexual assault awareness is both billed—and treated—as a “women’s issue.” Thus, past campaigns have focused on educating women. But does the conversation need to change?
Recently, lawyer, activist, and rape survivor Zerlina Maxwell went on a Fox News TV show to discuss this issue and responded to a question by the host about how women can keep themselves from becoming a victim. To this, Zerlina aptly replied “I don’t think that we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there with prevention.” With 99 percent of sexual violence being perpetrated by men, it does not make sense to ignore them as a target for our campaigns.
How can health communicators change the conversation? There are two main ways to target the male audience. First, bystander education has proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce sexual assaults. Because most assaults happen within social situations, teaching men and boys how and when to intervene when a women is in a position of vulnerability is critical.
The other option is to focus on educating men and boys about consent. “Don’t Be That Guy” is a behavioral marketing campaign targeting men 18 to 25 years old with the message that sex without consent is sexual assault. A collaboration between the Vancouver Police Department, the British Columbia Women’s Hospital, and other community groups, the campaign features eye-catching graphic illustrations clearly putting the responsibility for sexual assault on men. Unlike campaigns targeting female victim behavior that have been shown to be ineffective in reducing sexual assault rates, the Vancouver Police Department reported that sexual assaults were down 10 percent following the campaign that targeted men.
How will you reframe the message for sexual assault awareness month and every month after?
Casey Fay has a BS in Biology from Georgia Health Sciences University and an MS in Health Communication from Boston University. She is currently working on her doctoral degree in health education with a focus on violence against women. Her research interests include sexual violence and firearms as public health issues. She is an adjunct faculty member with Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, where she teaches classes on personal and community health, women’s health, violence prevention, and public health. She is also an adjunct faculty member teaching health communication to graduate students at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.