Why Primary Prevention Needs to Target Both Women and Men

There’s been quite a positive movement over the past few years to engage men and boys in preventing violence against women.  Unfortunately I’ve begun to hear some whisperings that work with women and girls does NOT constitute primary prevention.  Here is why I absolutely think that primary prevention work DOES and MUST include work with women and girls (as well as others on the gender spectrum):

I had a great exchange with a male colleague the other day (thanks Grant) that reminded me of why it is so important that I take responsibility for my own empowerment and why it is imperative that primary prevention of violence against women efforts target everyone on the gender spectrum.

While it can be hard for me to stand up for myself, and risk possible (inevitable?) criticism and backlash, I realize that unless I do so I am, by default, waiting for someone else (most likely a man) to do all the messy work and ‘come to my rescue’, which only perpetuates gender stereotypes of the ‘helpless woman’ and the ‘knight in shining armor’.  This is not to say that there are not many strong, self-confident women out there who stand up for themselves everyday (and that I am not on occasion one of these), but that in a society that teaches girls/women to base their value on what others think of them, and especially what men think of them, it can be hard for the best of us to overcome that inner voice that tells us if we speak up we will be ignored/ridiculed/squashed because we don’t have a right to have a voice.

It’s not enough to talk to men about privilege and teach them to value women, if we don’t teach women to value themselves and use their voices and power.  If we want men to stop taking, and being given (and women to stop giving away), unearned privilege and power then we need to teach women the skills and nurture their self-confidence so that they can take up and use responsibly the power that is rightfully theirs.  This is not an either/or deal.

This is about accountability as well.  If the majority of our resources are going to men (and I don’t know that this is happening but we’d better take the time to ask the question before it happens by default), then how is that changing what’s already happening?  Let’s make sure that *at least* 50% (and really, for equity’s sake, more than that) of our time, energy, resources, and efforts are going towards primary prevention (not just response) efforts that represent women, give women a voice, and work to empower women.

At the same time, on an individual level I have to be responsible for my own empowerment in the ways that I feel safe and I have to be accountable for making sure I am empowering other women – and other individuals and groups – who have less privilege and power than I do.


6 thoughts on “Why Primary Prevention Needs to Target Both Women and Men

  1. I think you have a good point that this is not an either/or situation. It’s definitely both/and. After all, we need comprehensive approaches. I think that these whispers may come from a tendency for folks to focus solely (either/or) on empowering women as THE strategy to end violence against them. I think when we talk about strategies targeted at women and girls, it can get so dangerously close what I see in Chapter 3 of the immensely popular book, Half the Sky: not to be victim blaming, but if women just stood up for themselves, this wouldn’t happen to them. For me, the question is HOW are we empowering women and girls? There is a different between saying “stand up for yourself so it doesn’t happen to you” (which I do not consider primary prevention) and “we can ALL be change agents!”

    • I agree with you Ashley that we need to make sure our work with women/girls does not lead to victim-blaming and I wasn’t even thinking about empowerment specifically related to being a victim of violence. I’m thinking more along the lines of work around building girls self-confidence in general so that they feel more comfortable speaking out on whatever issues they’re interested in, taking leadership roles, and just being themselves.

      There’s such a disparity in how boys and girls are socialized regarding how they think of themselves as individuals and in relation to others and how it translates into who feels comfortable in things like speaking in groups, believing they have expertise/skills, those kind of things. There’s a lot of research on girls that shows that around the pre-teen years many girls who were very confident in themselves suddenly lose that confidence. I know in my own life, I remember being very sure of myself as a young girl and I’ve wondered when and why I lost some of my confidence that what I have to say and contribute is worthwhile.

      So by and large we see men taking on leadership positions, not only because the “system” is set up to favor them, but also because many women and girls simply don’t view themselves as capable. Again, there are a lot of women who do step up to leadership roles and even seek them out, but the number of men still outweigh the number of women. If we don’t change this dynamic, then simply creating “openings” for women won’t necessarily lead to women filling those openings.

      I find it interesting that I have come across so many men who have much less experience than I do but who feel comfortable putting themselves out there as “experts,” when I constantly question whether or not I know enough about something or have enough skills to call myself an expert. Given conversations I’ve had with my female friends and colleagues, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only woman to struggle with this. This is the piece I think we need to focus on with women and girls, helping them to feel confident with themselves.

      • I had also meant to mention how self-confidence can help girls feel more comfortable asserting their needs and wants in sexual relationships. Again, not to put the onus on them to prevent sexual violence but because being able to know and EXPRESS want you want and need is a part of a healthy relationship! We can teach boys to ask and respect girls but if we don’t also teach girls how to TELL and respect themselves then we’re only solving half the equation.

  2. The following is my response to dialogue that occurred on an email listserv based on my blog post, which I think adds some valuable additional analysis to my original post:

    If the underlying problem is simply “WHO is perpetrating sexual violence” then I would agree (that primary prevention can only be done with perpetrators, and therefore men (since they are the vast majority of perpetrators). However, I think it’s a bigger issue than that. The “root of the problem” is not simply individual behaviors and individuals who choose to commit sexual violence. The problem with that is that the reasons WHY someone chooses to commit sexual violence go beyond individual factors to broader community and social norms. “The behavior of sexual violence” is more than just an individual committing sexual violence, it is peers/parents/acquaintances who support beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that support or condone sexual violence; it is communities/institutions/laws/policies that condone sexual violence and do not hold perpetrators accountable; it is media and social norms that glamorize and promote sexual violence. The problem when we ONLY target primary prevention efforts toward men/boys is that BOTH men/boys and women/girls – as individuals and as members of the broader society who construct and support social norms – learn and perpetuate norms, attitudes, and behaviors that create an environment in which sexual violence is acceptable.

    To address your questions “Yet when we talk about empowering women and girls, I do ask how this ultimately “strikes at the root.” Is the disempowerment of women and girls a root cause of the behavior? If so, how? Who is causing the disempowerment? What’s the root of that problem? Women? How can we address this without effectively turning the “problem” back to women and girls? And how would this stop sexual violence in the first place? …at the community level, how are disempowered women, or their disempowerment, the cause of sexual violence?” I will refer to the Prevention Institute’s list of 5 social norms that cause sexual violence:

    1. women: limited roles for and objectification and oppression of
    2. power: value placed on claiming and maintaining power (manifested as power over)
    3. violence: tolerance of aggression and attribution of blame to victims
    4. masculinity: traditional constructs of manhood, including domination, control and risk-taking
    5. privacy: notions of individual and family privacy that foster secrecy and silence.

    It’s not only men pushing girls and women into limited role or objectifying girls and women, other girls and women do this to both themselves and to other women. Both men and women are parents who teach both their sons and their daughters that women/girls have limited roles which are based on their status as sexual objects for men’s consumption. Girls choose to limit themselves to these roles because of the messages they get. Both men/boys and women/girls engage in victim-blaming. Both men and women are community members and policy and decision makers who choose to perpetuate these attitudes and beliefs in the way that our institutions, laws and policies are created. All of these things contribute to a culture and social norms that condone or allow sexual violence. An individual (man) may choose to commit sexual violence, but a lot of factors across the socio-ecological model combine to make it ok to commit sexual violence, with little or no consequences.

    Can we stop sexual violence simply by empowering women/girls? No. If we did this, then yes we would be “turning the ‘problem’ back to women and girls.” However, we also can’t stop sexual violence if we don’t empower women/girls. It’s an important piece of the puzzle.

    How does this translate into practical prevention work?

    1. As you said, oppression is (considered by some, including me) a root cause of sexual violence. Given that both men and women grow up in the same culture we have all internalized oppression to some degree, so both men/boys and women/girls need to do work around this. However, I would argue that that work looks very different for men/boys than for women/girls. Many programs and communities are already incorporating and using an analysis of oppression in the work that they do. For girls/women this may look like working with them to explore their own internalized oppression and how that limits their attitudes about themselves, their own and other women’s/girls’ roles, and women’s/girls’ sexuality and responsibility in sexual relations (i.e., victim blaming).

    2. Could we simply include women and girls in all of our efforts rather than working with them separately, say through mixed gender groups? Yes, but we know from research that while mixed gender groups are good for men/boys, they can actually have negative effects on women/girls. For this reason, we need to do specific work with women/girls.

    I’ll stop there before this becomes a full blown dissertation.

  3. Great analysis and resources shared on a listserv by Gabby from OCADSV (reposted here with permission):

    Sometimes commentary is better (and more efficient) with media. I will keep it short.

    Note: I limit the amount of time I spend replying to listservs, especially if it’s not direct technical assistance or a cyberactivism project. I belong to many listservs (local and national), so I know you can understand. Feel free to call me anytime, invite me as a guest on a webinar, or as a workshop presenter, or for coffee if you want more contextual interactions. The bulk of my work is training, technical assistance and in-person relationship building. I share this because as a person of color I ‘feel like’ (owning internalized response) I am obliged to chime in all the time, and I know it is impossible to accurately interpret silence – but for me, many times a lack of response is because I am just busy attending to my core workflow, not necessarily because I am feeling shut down or do not care. I ask, why aren’t these discussions ever sparked during in-person meetings? It’s usually agendas that have to do with assessments, evaluations and other methodologies, but not our own work of shifting norms through the self and systems accountability it takes to get to the change we need.

    So, here goes in regards to Brie’s blog:

    Yes, we must do both. I know in my own Latin@ community, if we did not support each other in risk reduction (safety around police, ICE, streets, etc.) we would be incarcerated, homeless, deported and sexually assaulted at higher rates. The main reason why I majored in Criminal Justice was not for punitive purposes, it was to work on criminal justice reform as a means to violence prevention. We cannot stop having each other’s back just because there is a movement to address the disparities to end SV, especially if we are leaders in making sure that the ‘movement’ works for our communities and not just mainstream. Working against oppression while living in it is hard to do, but easier in the company of our immediate communities and in collaboration with various communities. The continuum of prevention strategies used by las Mujeres de Ciudad Juares and their communities is another great example of this, too. There are many examples of how oppressed communities engage all genders in prevention, and I would be negating the power of community organizing if I did not say that all prevention is primary.

    Here’s a video created by the Girl Effect folks…

    Caveat, to the next video: It is true that not all women choose to marry and have kids. And, yes, primary prevention works to promote a range of female/male roles (just wanted to point that out before someone else did). The beauty of social marketing campaigns is that each community can come up with what works for them. So, if it does not work for you, create your own.


  4. I felt like I had a lot to say, but I guess I don’t. I said my piece about oppression on about a million listservs now…

    I think it’s important to bring up, and it’s hard because people have valid concerns about victim-blaming. I think this post is clear it’s not about that, and it’s not about safety-tip rape whistle stuff.

    It’s dismantling the bricks of oppression. Remove remove remove, stack stack stack, rebuild rebuild rebuild.

    I’m interested in hearing more cis-identified hetmen respond to this post.

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