Living Columns & Blogs

Healthy relationships: Everyone has a role in preventing sexual violence

It is a valid question: Is it possible to prevent sexual violence?

The statistics are painfully clear. In the U.S., 1 in 5 women will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, as will 1 in 71 men. At the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, we work every day with women and men who have survived sexual violence. We offer crisis intervention at the hospital and on our 24-hour hotline; we provide individual and group support counseling for survivors of recent and child sexual assault; we work with survivors to obtain Sexual Violence Protection Orders; and we provide representation to victims of sexual assault who need an advocate through the often complex legal, civil or university systems they face.

But at the end of the day, it would not be possible to do that work with survivors if we did not also believe that, in fact, prevention is possible.

So whose responsibility is it to prevent sexual violence? The short answer is: it is everyone’s responsibility.

Too often, victims are blamed for their own assaults, as if they could or should have done something to prevent it from happening. Victims often face questions about how much they’ve had to drink, where they were, or what they were wearing. And that is if they are believed in the first place. While ultimately the responsibility for a sexual assault — or any type of sexual violence — lies with the perpetrator, the responsibility for prevention lies with the entire community. We all have a role to play in the prevention of sexual violence.

As individuals, our first responsibility in prevention is to believe victims and offer support.

Personal support is wonderful, but knowing the resources in your community that are available to survivors is even better.

Individuals can also become “engaged bystanders” — people who are willing to intervene directly or indirectly when they see someone at risk of sexual violence or assault. It may be as simple as interrupting a demeaning comment or joke or as complex as calling for help when someone is at risk. An engaged bystander learns to recognize situations where sexual violence can occur and learns multiple strategies to intervene appropriately and safely.

Penn State’s Stand for State initiative is a great example of teaching people how to intervene — and how to prevent — sexual violence.

Businesses and organizations can also be engaged in the work of prevention by developing appropriate policies — and following them — to address sexual harassment and violence.

Community groups can help increase public awareness of sexual violence, its impact and the resources available to survivors by hosting programs or posting information. Each April, for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, local businesses display information from the Women’s Resource Center to increase public awareness and help the community understand where to go for help. This year, there are age-appropriate coloring pages in backpacks going to school children and in bags at local food banks.

We all have a role to play in the prevention of sexual violence. One person, one action, one intervention at a time — with the commitment of a community, prevention is possible.

Anne K. Ard is the executive director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College. Contact her at 238-7066 or at