Sexual Violence: We Know How To Stop It

By Jenny Dills, MPH

The sexual assault survivors that came through the door of the Mizzou Women’s Center weren’t strangers to me. They were my college friends and classmates.

As an undergraduate volunteer I could give them hotline numbers, help set up counseling appointments, and advocate for them with the school. But I couldn’t give them what they needed: a time machine to go back to stop it from happening to keep them and their friends safe.

These experiences showed me that the problem of sexual violence is urgent — and propelled me into a career in violence prevention. Here’s what I’ve learned: Sexual violence is preventable. That’s not my opinion. It’s what the science tells us.

In graduate school, I heard David Lee of the California Coalition Against Sexual Violence speak about sexual assault prevention. He talked about how to grow healthy relationships, and how to change behavior through social marketing. A lightbulb went off in my head: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY — WE CAN PREVENT THIS. From that point, I committed to studying how to prevent violence.

I now specialize in violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here we understand sexual violence not as an inevitable crime, but as an urgent public health problem. Every day we work to learn more about how to prevent it before it begins. We have made so much progress toward our goal of sexual violence prevention:

Sexual violence is common.

  • Sexual violence is any sexual activity when consent in not obtained or not freely given. It is a spectrum of behaviors including rape and sexual harassment.
  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape, and 1 in 14 men has been made to penetrate someone (completed or attempted) during his lifetime.

Sexual violence starts early.

  • 1 in 3 female rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11–17 years old, and 1 in 8 reported that it occurred before age 10.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 male rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11–17 years old, and about 1 in 4 reported that it occurred before age 10.
  • Sexual violence is costly. Recent estimates put the cost of rape at $122,461 per victim, including medical costs, lost productivity, criminal justice activities, and other costs.
  • Sexual violence has negative health outcomes. The consequences of sexual violence are physical (e.g. bruising and genital injuries) and psychological (e.g. depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts).
  • The consequences may also be chronic. Victims may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and experience re-occurring gynecological, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and
    sexual health problems.
  • Sexual violence is linked to negative health behaviors. Victims are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, use drugs, and engage in risky sexual activity.

We have evidence-based strategies for preventing sexual violence:

  • Promote social norms that protect against violence
  • Teach skills to prevent sexual violence
  • Provide opportunities to empower and support girls and women
  • Create protective environments
  • Support victims/survivors to lessen harms

CDC’s STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence highlights strategies based on the best available evidence to help communities and states prevent and reduce sexual violence.

We have come a long way in learning what works to prevent violence, but we still have a lot more work to do.

I have come a long way from being an undergraduate without the right tools to prevent violence on my campus. I have the privilege now to work with experts to make sure the best evidence and strategies get into the hands of educators, parents, community members, and students. We use social media, online tools and trainings, and partner with other organizations to make prevention strategies and messages accessible and understandable. I don’t want the next generation of college students left wondering if they could have done more to prevent sexual violence on their campuses. I’m committed to this work during Sexual Assault Awareness Month and EVERY month. Are you?

Jenny Dills, MPH is a Health Communications Specialist in the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Her work focuses primarily on sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and teen dating violence prevention. Prior to coming to CDC, she worked for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and in the University of Missouri Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center.

Since 2001, NSVRC has coordinated the national Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign observed every April. This year’s theme, “I Ask,” is all about consent. Join the campaign by accessing free resources at nsvrc.org/saam. Resources are available in Spanish at nsvrc.org/es/saam.

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and it’s a critical opportunity to look at the role consent plays in our lives.

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National Sexual Violence Resource Center

NSVRC provides research & tools to advocates working on the frontlines to end sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.