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Risk Reduction Doesn’t Work

It’s raining like the end-times are near, and I accidentally brought my only occasionally functional umbrella to work with me this morning.  While I do enjoy challenging nature in order to test my stoicism at times, I find that wool pants are not the best outfit in which to rumble with the weather.  Sitting in my office drenched and shivering, of course my thoughts turn to risk reduction!

Risk reduction is a public health term that refers to changing behavior to lessen the chance of being affected by some adverse experience.  Risk reduction is a really powerful tool in a lot of public health contexts: keeping people from getting the flu, preventing heart disease by encouraging exercise, AIDS prevention.  In fact, I’d argue that risk reduction is one of the most important aspects of healthy sex education - teaching young people how to prevent pregnancy, STI transmission, and so forth.  In these arenas, risk reduction puts responsibility (usually) where it belongs - on the individual, to make healthy life choices for themselves.

The problems with risk reduction strategies come up when we try to apply them to things that aren’t preventable by an individual person making healthy life choices for themselves.  Rape prevention is one of these areas where the world applies a lot of risk-reduction strategies (a lot of them Shira talked about in her previous post), especially to women, and they don’t apply.

Holly over at The Pervocracy, one of my favorite bloggers, has a nice takedown of a couple of the most prominent risk-reduction warnings we give to women about how to stop themselves from being assaulted or raped.  She takes Cosmo down every month, by the way, and it’s awesome.  It’s also incredible tiring and disappointing that, once again, we’re seeing “tips” and “strategies” like these promoted in an ostensibly female-friendly magazine.

So, here are the problems with risk reduction in the world of rape and sexual assault prevention:  first, it doesn’t work.  There is no length of skirt that will prevent a husband or intimate partner who is a perpetrator from perpetrating.  Telling women to travel in packs to bars, to hold their keys in their hands like wolverine at night while walking to cars or apartments doesn’t do anything to prevent assault from people she may know.

Second, risk reduction strategies in rape prevention are almost always targeted to women - say no when you mean no, don’t drink, don’t go to places you don’t know, don’t spend time with strange men, don’t act like a human being.  The double-standard is painful in its transparency here.

Third, they are heteronormative.  Most risk reduction strategies I’ve seen have focused on techniques for women (in my experience, young college-aged women) to protect themselves from unknown male assailants.  I never received any messages about how to protect myself from perpetrators, and especially not male perpetrators.  Risk reduction rarely addressed the lives of gays and lesbians, and completely ignores the existence of the trans population.
But here’s my bigger beef with risk prevention as a strategy for reducing rape: it makes resisting rape an individual activity.  This is the biggest flaw in using risk reduction in this work, and the one that would still be prominent even if somehow, we were able to make risk reduction language more inclusive and less gendered.  All risk reduction training is, by its nature, individual - the ads on the bus about how to avoid getting H1N1 are focused on the individual person modifying their behavior to make catching the disease less likely.

Reducing or eliminating rape in our culture isn’t an individual task.  Asking women to each, individually, fight off or take responsibility for managing the entirety of the male population is both unjust and impossible.  Rape exists at the levels it does in our society because of rape culture.  We know this.  We have good research about how perpetrators operate in the world, and how much their operation relies on several overlapping levels of social camouflage.  Rapists don’t rape because individual survivors aren’t vigilant enough about protecting their valuable bodily autonomy; they rape because we live in a culture that promotes it and they can get away with it.

We need to tackle rape and sexual assault as a social problem, one that requires community organizing and policy change to stop.  When we look at social problems as individual problems, we completely miss the root cause of the issue and end up pressuring people to alter their lives and reduce their abilities to live fully and freely for no benefit.  Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon wrote a great post about this concept two years ago, that I think is directly relatable here:

If you want to gauge how much a social problem is determined by society to be a matter of individual morality more than a collective problem that can only be addressed by a collective solution, you could do worse than to ask, “Are individual women considered the gatekeepers/middle class white women the moral exemplars on this issue?” Rising obesity and nutrition-related health issues? If we considered it a social problem, we’d look to economic controls on corn syrup, restructuring our food distribution, building more opportunities for exercise into our city structures. But if we considered it a matter of morality, we’d simply demand that women show off their moral purity by having a race for the smallest waistline. STDs and unwanted pregnancy: If it were a social problem, we’d have sex education and free condoms for all. But instead we tell women to keep their legs shut and save for their husbands.

And, I think we can add rape and sexual assault: if we considered it a social problem, we would have stronger survivor supports in place (and actually test rape kits), a criminal justice system that doesn’t re-traumatize survivors, and strong media messages about consent and sexuality that make rapists conspicuous in the world.  Instead, we treat it like an issue of personal behavior, and tell women (and it is women) that they need to never have sex with anyone, they need to carry mace, and they need to take responsibility for being victimized.

Reducing or eliminating rape requires a big overhaul of social messaging; it requires new ways of thinking about sex as an activity between partners; I think it also requires a real strong restructuring of masculinity as a concept.

This morning, I could have kept myself dry by bringing an umbrella that worked.  It was pretty much my fault that I’m as wet as I am, and I should have known better; but rape is not rain.  It is not forecast on the morning news, and we will never stop it if we keep treating it like weather.

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Posted by Dave

Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.


  1. Just a note that a section of this post was quoted in a recent Jezebel article about sexual assault on campuses:

  2. Georgia KetchmarkMarch 21, 2010 at 5:44

    Rape IS a social problem - and it won't be going away. It is imperative, however, to address this issue on as many fronts as possible. While we need to talk to our boys, give them examples by living as strong women, holding perpetrators accountable for their actions, we simply must - MUST - educate our young women on choices.

    This does not have to preclude being real, embracing and exploring their sexuality while still making safer choices. Girls and women need to know who is a threat (regardless of gender, age, location or preference) and what to do about it, address the legal quagmire that scoffs at rape victims.

    We need to face the world not as victims but as strong women making strong choices and walking with confidence and the power of knowledge and practice!

    There can be NO SHAME to preventative behavior; there can be NO SHAME to shout from the rooftops that a short skirt is NOT an invitation for power-over. There is NO SHAME in learning to fight, in walking in the light, in traveling in groups, in carrying defensive weapons, in looking attackers/molesters/rapists in the face and saying NO! again and again and again.

    I make good choices and I do not walk in fear - and I am NO LESS a woman than anyone who would walk in the worst neighborhood alone in scanty clothing just because she can.

    I teach self defense to any age or gender who asks me, with any fitness level. Defending ourselves is our right to life - altering behavior may not be the way of the author above, but it has kept me from victimization without a doubt.


    Georgia Ketchmark

  3. I too work in Self Defense Education and as much as I believe in working on preventing rape and violence towards women and children by address the perpetrators, I also know that no matter how hard we work on raising non-violent members of society there will always be violence. We may be able to reduce through tougher laws but we will never be able to get rid of all violence. Therefore, just has I have taught both my son and daughters to swim so that they will be safe near water, and I have taught them how to be safe drivers, and I have encouraged them to take emergency first aid certification just in case, I have taught them to to defend themselves against an attacker.

    It seems ridiculous to me that learning a simple survival skill is considered "blaming the victim" or "ineffective" if it does not work 100% of the time. No other skill, like water safety, is held up to that standard. As a martial artist and self defense instructor I do not believe that I can defend myself 100% of the time. I do believe that I will give any potential attacker a run for his money and just maybe, after limping away from me, he might look for a new profession. When attackers begin to believe that there will be a true consequence to their behavior, whether that be due to legal intervention or to damage done to them by women who fight back they might actually think twice before looking for "easy prey."

    Learning self defense is just another set of skills that empowers women. By acquiring tools that address a specific need we grow and become empowered. I know that if I had to do CPR on someone the skills I have learned, may not be 100% what they need to be in order to save this person, but I will to my damnedest to do what I can.

    I hope the day will come when girls will be encourage to become physically intelligent in addition to all of their other intelligences. Self Defense training is just another way of becoming more intelligent.



  4. I'm disappointed you write that risk reduction doesn't work. I think you need to re-define what "work" is.

    As a survivor myself, I took several self-defense & personal safety classes and tried out martial arts before taking a class with IMPACT (in another state.) It was the first time I felt safe again. It gave me the freedom to travel alone and have closer relationships with men. It made me feel like a full, healthy person again. I started living the life I wanted to live rather than living with that constant worry hanging over my head.

    I support work to change our culture and do that myself everyday, but saying that women have no agency just in order to avoid victim-blaming that has happened for years as part of other self-defense traditions, but isn't happening in many worthy organizations today (as the above post says, "feminist, trauma-informed" organizations, that frequently have social change as part of their perspective,) is undue punishment both to these organizations for the work they do for the community and to women who have survived assault and want to have some immediate tools for the future.

    I know that you're trying to protect us & help us as survivors by saying these things, but I'd rather be able to protect myself.

    Thanks for all of your hard work.



  5. Dave,

    I completely support and appreciate what you're saying with this blog post and I agree that most risk reduction doesn't work. Except for one kind of risk reduction that has been shown by more than 10 years of empirical research to be highly effective: SELF-DEFENSE TRAINING. More specifically, feminist, trauma-informed self-defense training in which instructors acknowledge that most rapes are perpetrated by familiar people, present viable strategies for rape in intimate relationships, vigilantly guard against victim-blaming and support women in finding and using the power in their bodies and voices.

    I am the Director of IMPACT ( and just as engaged in work to create social and cultural change as anyone who works at a rape crisis center. I find it frustrating that the work we do gets lumped in with all the other victim-blaming risk-reduction strategies and that posts like this lack a nuanced understanding of situations in which risk reduction is a necessary part of a continuum of strategies to create change.

    Here is a link to a recent VAWNet article that gives a good summary of all the evidence for the efficacy of self-defense training. More data exists on the effectiveness of phyiscal and verbal resistance than any of the primary prevention strategies that are currently being proliferated:

    I agree that focusing on risk reduction and individual actions is evidence of the oppressive devaluation of a group that is hardest hit by the public health crisis in question and thus IMPACT's programs include primary prevention and cultural change as well. It is also true that even the most effective social justice organizing will only change the actions of SOME perpetrators so all of us at risk to be raped deserve to have a way to stop sexual assault that lives in our bodies and that follows us wherever we go. If any of the changes you (and everyone at IMPACT) advocate happen, great. If they don't succeed in making any given rapist stop I know my foot, elbow, or voice will. That knowledge makes me feel freer and more powerful as a woman living in a rape culture-- precisely the opposite effect of some of the other messages I've heard about walking in packs, carrying my keys, or refraining from wearing short skirts.

  6. Excellent piece. Advice that would be well-heeded but unfortunately will be a hard time coming.

  7. Thomas MacAulay MillarMarch 16, 2010 at 12:23

    This is very well done, and IMO absolutely right on the money. I'll add that there is no other crime where we're willing to tolerate abyssimally low reporting and conviction rates without any real effort to think about reform.

  8. Absolutely, wonderful!!!!

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