The Importance of Community in Sexual Violence Prevention

Preventing sexual violence, harassment, and abuse requires more than one voice. It takes a community of engaged individuals engaged in intentional and group-specific actions.

As a survivor of sexual violence and speaker, I understand individuals’ power in speaking up. Sometimes one individual or a small collective of motivated community leaders can drive forward change on significant issues. Where any community change starts small, and the work concerning sexual violence has to start somewhere, relying on the few to do the work of many is not enough. Even further, relying on a few vocal advocates neglects the countless ways that every member of our campuses can help prevent sexual violence.

When people ask me that question, “how do we stop sexual violence?” I have to let them know the answer is not a sole profound measure but an entire community willing to engage in a series of deliberate actions over time. All of us have a role to play in preventing violence, whether this means speaking up at the moment, examining how we seek consent in our own relationships, or thinking about the resources we can offer to survivors. 

To that end, I’ve recently studied some of the more powerful ways we can engage our communities. Ranging from peer education and anonymous polling to targeted creative campaigns, below are some of my top findings for meaningful initiatives you might consider around mobilizing community engagement.

Implement a Peer Education Curriculum

Peer education around primary prevention, including sexual violence prevention, has proven to be a cost-effective and more engaging measure for educating undergraduate students. Peer education programs often offer students more community-centric programming that feels relevant and tangible. When appropriately implemented and peer facilitators are given the right skills, peer education offers students an opportunity for more grass-root driven conversations. These conversations can be powerful, constantly tailored, and tweaked towards relevant participant issues. Overall, the results can feel more relevant and approachable for student participants.

I’ve supported several campuses in implementing a peer education program. My recommendations are as follows:

Keep the program centered on one or two specific communities at first.

Whether you work in Title IX, Health and Wellness Prevention, or Student Activities, keeping your peer education program niched to serve a particular population is a great way to initially test content and measure more accurate deliverables. A failing I sometimes see is when campuses cast their net too wide, designing content and education meant to fit the needs of everyone instead of a few populations. Niching your program at first allows you to gauge what is working and measure for ongoing shifts in beliefs. The more you can measure, the better you can tweak the program for further rollout or potentially seek out grant funding for broader implementation. Keeping your program specific to a particular community to start can also help with more intentional recruitment for peer educators.

Less is often more with peer education.

Overly long peer education sessions ranging from one to one and a half hours offer a higher barrier to entry for both peer facilitators and student participants. 

Best estimates predict that a facilitator will need to spend three to four hours of practice for every hour of curricula. Asking peer facilitators to spend up to four hours learning a specific curriculum and other training around survivor support, bystander intervention, Title IX compliance, and other required information can be a lot. 

For participants, asking for an hour to two can also present a dilemma. Our involved student leaders are often already very business. Other general communities might not see the need or benefit in attending a longer training. Not to mention the research that shows many members of Generation Z are taxed by hour-long lectures and prefer content that requires 15 to 20 minutes of engagement. 

When considering creating a peer education curriculum, I recommend being creative in timing. For my own Peer Education Program, I created a suite of 20 micro-modules, each of 10 to 15 minutes of content. Though less information is covered in each module, they are easier to slot into existing events, quicker to learn, and focus on one specific issue at a time to maximize education.

Constantly assess peer education programs.

Building off the previous point, if we are tailoring our programs to be shorter, we should also tweak our assessments to fit these changes. 

Where assessment is vital, I’ve found a lot more success in measuring three or four main questions than overloading my assessment tools. Survey fatigue is real. Tailoring our programs to be more focused gives us the power to measure three or four critical topics instead of overextending a survey instrument and collecting diminished data. 

I also recommend assessment, even if informal, in creating your peer education program. One question I am continually asked is how to engage more resistant populations. My recommendation is always to ask them directly. 

Suppose you have a population that regularly presents challenges regarding engagement. Why not approach them directly and ask them about the type of content that feels meaningful to them? Sometimes I find the honest approach of “we have to do sexual violence prevention work, so what type of program or what topic would be more engaging for you to learn about?” can offer keen insights that help us deliver a more relevant program. We may never know what our students need if we do not ask. 

Offer Students Anonymous Opportunities to Ask Questions

No matter the population, I have found that our students have questions, often a wide variety of them, all relevant to the greater conversation. I’ve also found that it is easy to assume that if our students have questions around sexual violence prevention, they will willingly ask these questions or seek out resources.

More often than not, this is not the case. 

Where our students have questions, I often find the barrier to asking these questions and finding relevant information is so significant that many simply continue to exist in ignorance.

For example, I once led a town hall community forum where a student asked for definitions for different terms such as gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression. 

I think many of us might assume this to be basic information. Even worse, I think it is easy to assume our students should seek answers to this type of information independently.

Answering this question is vital for the safety of our entire campus community. And the last thing I’d ever want is for a student to leave a session without these answers. 

I mention anonymous opportunities to ask questions, though, because asking our students to openly share their knowledge gaps in a public forum or session can come with the fear of losing social capital or even appearing intolerant. If I were leading a public Q&A, I could foresee a student holding in this question for fear of the judgment they might receive.

This is why I’ve implemented anonymous Q&As into all my sessions. Yes, I still screen student responses to ensure the questions are appropriate, but since I’ve started implementing anonymous Q&A software (one of the lessons I learned from virtual programs), I’ve seen a surge in the types of questions I am asked.

I encourage you to do the same. Whether leading a community program or as part of a social media campaign, I encourage you to deploy tools that allow your students to anonymously submit questions to ensure none slip through the cracks. The last thing I ever want is a participant in one of my programs to leave ignorant for fear of asking something in a way that seems ignorant or taboo. 

Get Creative in Community Initiatives

Whenever I consider sexual violence prevention efforts, I always like to think of programs as active and passive. Active programming requires a commitment of engagement, time, and attention. Passive meet students where they are and offer information at the moment with little cost of engagement.

Both are vital in prevention as one program or snippet of education often does not cut it. Many of our students will need to hear a message countless times to internalize the information.

Whether active or passive, our community education needs to be creative! Not everyone learns by attending a workshop or lecture. Another poster or flier is easy to ignore. Yes, these have a place, but it’s okay to flex your creativity here.

For example, I once heard of a powerful initiative at the University of Cincinnati. UC’s campus setup is unique in that its football stadium is located right in the middle of campus. Due to this, during football games and major events like homecoming, the foot traffic they receive on campus is massive. To monopolize on this, members of the University’s prevention team designed a series of Snapchat geofilters about consent and the impacts of alcohol. These geofilters were queued up to pop up during their homecoming game. 

The impact? Over homecoming weekend, the geofilters received close to 1 million views. 

Now I understand this is a little niche to this University. I admire their creativity and willingness to use an approachable and culturally relevant tool, though.

Every campus is different, but only you can know how to best engage your students in unique ways. And if you are struggling to think of out-of-the-box ideas, ask your students directly. I often find that our students are keyed into the relevant ways their generation receives and engages with information. Use this expertise!

Turning to your students to create more relevant education and prevention marketing is crucial. Where we may feel technologically illiterate or overwhelmed by the rapidly changing pace of social media and apps, we don’t only have to rely on ourselves to learn these technologies. Our students hold the key to effective, creative community initiatives. The more we can build student-driven partnerships and directly poll our campus populations around what feels engaging, the better we can offer the right resources and initiatives. 

Be creative! But don’t think you have to be creative alone!