Challenging Dogma - Fall 2007

...Using the social and behavioral sciences to improve the practice of public health.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Rape prevention in the United States: Fostering the cycle of violence - Jessica Trudeau

“The big lie perpetuated on western society is the idea of women’s inferiority, a lie so deeply ingrained in our social behavior that to merely recognize it is to risk unraveling the entire fabric of civilization.” – Molly Haskell (14).

In the mid-1990s, the American Medical Association defined rape as a “social virus”; “a silent-violent epidemic” (11). Rape is the fastest growing crime in the United States, with 302,091 women and 92,748 men raped within the nation’s borders each year (5). Even when confronted with these staggering statistics, rape prevention has received little attention from the public sector. What attention it has received has been misguided, inappropriate, and completely void of acknowledging the actual causes of rape. It is estimated that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, although most incidents of rape and sexual violence are not reported, meaning these statistics may not represent the actual number that occur (5). Regardless, the estimated numbers prove to be nothing less than shocking. Rape has truly become ordinary.

Traditionally, rape prevention programs have failed for three reasons: framing of the issue within society, specifically in the media; relying on the Health Belief model and its concentration on individual-level risk factors as a means of prevention; and targeting the wrong population while allowing the very population that should be held under scrutiny to go free.

Sound and effective preventive strategies must be initiated in order to combat this so-called epidemic that is growing increasingly larger, saturating every facet of society. Currently, rape prevention does not exist in the United States as a fundamental approach to stopping rape - the key word being prevention. Most programs dedicated to the topic of rape and sexual violence are aimed at helping victims after the rape has already occurred with emergency room support, counseling, and criminal proceedings. These types of services, albeit necessary, do nothing to prevent the rape from occurring in the first place. The few preventive measures that have been employed have failed due to a primary focus on the female population, isolating them with fear as their only form of protection, and counteracting that fear with societal norms framed by the media.


Framing is the conscious decision to guide an audience to look at something in a certain way (15). It is not necessary to have to change people’s knowledge about a subject, but to change their way of thinking about it (15). The Framing Theory states that the way to change behavior is to change the way issues are framed (15). Since their employment, rape prevention strategies have mimicked the media in how they frame rape, the rapist, and the victim. Sexual violence in the United States is still largely a taboo subject, forcing the average American’s exposure to the subject of rape to come directly from the media. In masking the realities of rape, the media has framed both the rapist and the victim in false and unrealistic terms, therefore reinforcing the roles that men and women play in a paternalistic society. Rape prevention programs have done nothing to counteract this view. They have, in fact, contributed to it.

The first myth that the media perpetuates is the notion of women as victims, nothing more than sexual objects simply waiting to be preyed upon. From a young age, children are bombarded with images of women as profoundly sexual in nature, profoundly subordinate to men, virtually helpless without them. Comic books and cartoons portray scantily-clad women as damsels in distress, while the images of men exude masculinity and power. Little girls grow up idolizing pop singers and socialites, who grace the covers of magazines in skimpy clothing draped over perfect bodies sculpted by surgeons and personal trainers. Little boys grow up fantasizing over these same images, while striving themselves to be the masculine gods necessary to protect them. Jean Kilbourne expands on this subject in her film titled “Killing Us Softly 3” where she investigates the sexual objectification of women in advertisements. She emphasizes the point that women are constantly turned into objects within the larger media (16). This explicit objectification of a human being, she claims, is the first step in justifying violence towards that person (16). Societies that foster the objectification of women coupled with aggressive masculinity have alarmingly high rates of rape and sexual violence (19).

On the surface, the image of a woman as a victim in rape prevention has had an apparent underlying advantageous meaning for both sexes. She reinforces male superiority, masculinity, and power; her need to be protected by the male species (11). On the other hand, she stands as a symbol of feminism, independence, women solidarity; the need for women to protect each other and themselves (11). Within the bigger picture, this symbol contributes to isolating women further from men, while also isolating those women who are victims from those women who are not.

The notion of the rapist as a monster is the second myth that the media perpetuates. The majority of the rape publicized is “stranger rape”; the serial killers and kidnappers; the fiends that capture the media and society’s attention due to the shock and brutality of their crimes. According to a recently published National Violence Against Women Survey, 62% of rapes that occur against adult women are by intimate partners, and 21% by acquaintances (4). The reality is these “monsters” that rape are our fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and friends. Only 17% of all rapes are classified as stranger rape (4). Eight out of ten survivors know their perpetrator (5). This image allows males to less easily identify with rapists as one of their own. Therefore the rapist becomes almost un-human.

Even when a rape is publicized in the media that accuses a known or relatable figure, it has been framed such that the rapist himself becomes softened in the eyes of the viewing public. The scandals surrounding the NBA basketball star, Kobe Bryant, and the players on the Duke Lacrosse team are textbook examples of this. Whether these alleged rapes actually occurred or not, the media twisted the story so that the women who were involved were portrayed not as potential victims of a heinous crime, but essentially as whores, women seeking attention and money, their shot at 15 minutes of fame. The focus was on what these women did for a living and what they could gain from lying and accusing these seemingly innocent, reputable men of an unthinkable crime. The media flashed images of the famous basketball player clutching his attractive wife’s hand; the young, educated, All-American lacrosse players sporting neatly combed hair, collared shirts and ties, delivering rehearsed speeches with their affluent parents standing supportively by their sides. These images forced the viewers to question what these successful men could possibly see in the women that accused them. Regardless of the facts surrounding the actual rape, the way the media chose to frame these alleged rapists made them, in turn, become the victims in America’s eyes. The viewers began to even feel sorry for them.

The framing of when, how, by and to whom, rape occurs needs to be shifted in rape prevention campaigns, counteracting the images the media bombards the public with daily. Changing the way society works is a seemingly insurmountable task, but the media has so distorted the way its viewers see rape, rapists and victims, that public health needs to forge its own aggressive media campaign that covers all ages, races and social classes. Immediate elimination of women portrayed as sexual objects in the media may not be possible, but de-normalizing it may be. At the very least, bringing it to the forefront will raise awareness to something that the public has come to accept as ordinary. Rapists, in turn, need to be depicted as who they are - outwardly normal men with wives, children, and careers. This will allow men to not only see that image as someone they might know, but also potentially as themselves. Perhaps, at this point, only shame will drive them to want to change the way their gender is perceived.

Social-level prevention

Currently, public health campaigns focusing on rape prevention have placed the responsibility of prevention at an individual-level. Prevention campaigns utilize the Health Belief Model to instill fear in women. The Health Belief Model states that a person will behave a certain way if they are forced to evaluate the association between perceived susceptibility and perceived risk of a behavior, and the perceived cost of doing or not doing the behavior (15). Prevention campaigns barrage women with statistics illustrating that rape does not discriminate based on race or socioeconomic status. It can essentially happen to any woman, any time, anywhere. All women are susceptible, all women are at risk, and the cost of not changing a behavior - which in this case is protecting oneself - is rape. Rape is portrayed as inevitable, essentially a matter of where, when and how, not if. Therefore, women who do not take measures to protect themselves will undoubtedly become the next victim. Rape is seen “as a relentless force that merely shifts its location from one woman’s body to another’s” (11). Most prevention campaigns are void of even the mention of the rapist or the underlying causes of rape culture, therefore holding women accountable for the crimes committed against them.

Statistics provided dismiss the individuality of each rape and each victim. In this way, women who are victims are isolated from the rest of society, even from the rest of their own gender. A unique and horrifying experience is reduced to a number, added to other numbers, and together used to threaten women with the fear that they could be next (11). Rape is compared to an epidemic, creating the notion that rape is something a woman can just “catch”, like the flu (11). And, like prevention of the flu where one is taught to wash their hands and take their vitamins to reduce the risk of getting sick, women are taught simple mechanisms to avoid the potential of an attack, although not being able to eliminate it altogether. Thus the responsibility of a host of social, health, and environmental problems is personalized and placed on each individual woman (11).
Rape prevention programs illustrate this approach with broad, threatening statements on their pamphlets or websites.
“We believe that every woman should know that a crime might happen to her, and she should know how to avoid it, if possible, and how to deal with it if avoidance isn’t possible (3).”
“Accept the fact that you are a potential rape victim. Many women operate under the illusion ‘it will never happen to me’. It may (18).”
“If you remember nothing else after viewing this site, I hope you will at least remember this: The longer the female dating partner waits to reject a male dating partner's sexual initiatives, the higher her risk of being sexually assaulted (17).”

Rape prevention in this country has essentially become synonymous with self-defense. The focus is on instilling fear in women to protect themselves, because who else will? From a young age, girls are taught the fundamentals of rape avoidance - don’t talk to strangers; walk in packs; avoid going out after dark. As women get older these warnings expand - utilize your keys as a weapon, or carry a knife or a can of mace; look under the car before getting in; don’t let a man buy a drink for you at a bar; don’t get into an elevator with a stranger. Rape prevention campaigns produce laundry lists of situations women should avoid, precautions they should take. As if a woman’s actions have a direct correlation to the probability of her getting raped. As if a woman is not safe anytime, anywhere. The rapist is essentially off-the-hook to roam as he pleases among a population of women paralyzed by fear.

Focus on individual-level responsibility, while ignoring social responsibility, has added to the failure of rape prevention campaigns. Rape is not biologically-conditioned; it is created and fostered within society (19). By focusing intently on rape as an individual problem addressed only through a potential victim’s fear, rape prevention campaigns are losing sight, if not virtually ignoring, the underlying causes of rape. The social and behavioral sciences need to be utilized to identify these causes, so that public health can truly begin to prevent rape by addressing its source in society.


The most significant failure of current rape prevention strategies has been its choice of audience – women. Ninety to ninety-nine percent of rapists are men (8). Clearly preventing rape by telling women to protect themselves has not stopped this epidemic from spreading. The primary focus needs to shift to include men, because men are the ones who rape. Men need to take responsibility for their actions and their gender. They need to hold each other accountable for the incidents that occur.

Men and women initially share the same views when it comes to the act of rape and sexual assault, but recent studies on who is at fault in rape contexts have highlighted differences in the ways in which men and women attribute blame in sexual assault. Men attribute less blame to perpetrators of sexual assault than do women, regardless of the sex of the rapist (9). This illustrates that men may identify with the power associated with the role of perpetrator (9). Thus the primary audience of rape prevention programs needs to be men, the secondary audience women, and the focus needs to be combating the causes of rape together.

Seventy-one percent of female survivors report being raped before the age of 18; almost half of these occurred before the age of 12 (4). For this reason, rape and sexual violence has often been called the “problem of youth” (4). Attitudes and beliefs regarding the differences between the sexes, and the notion of sexuality itself are formed early in life. The few preventative programs that are geared toward men often begin during late adolescence or the college years. By this time men’s attitudes and beliefs toward women and sexuality are already formed (5). Prevention programs need to begin at a young age. These initial programs do not necessarily need to address rape itself, but focus on building confidence and healthy relationships, while discussing gender differences and expectations. These themes need to continue to be addressed as a young person matures and is more heavily influenced by environmental and social factors.

A few rape prevention programs have pioneered this approach by offering workshops alternative to the traditional self-defense model with titles such as: Growing Up Male and Female; Overcoming Fear: A Basic Rape Awareness Program; Relationship Violence; Straight Talk; Body Image, Gender, and the Media; and Making Better Gender Connections (19).

Prevention programs also often separate men and women into different groups, thereby reinforcing the notion that men and women are not equals and not able to handle the topic of sexual violence and sexuality together. Although the focus does need to be shifted to include men, it would be counterproductive to separate them into gender subgroups. Only by working together as allies and beginning at a young age to address the underlying causes, can men and women possess the tools necessary to combat the societal norms that foster the rape within society.


Traditionally, public health programs aimed at rape prevention have failed to prevent rape at all. They have placed responsibility on women at an individual level, isolating them in fear by incorporating the Health Belief Model to threaten them with the inevitability of rape. They have almost entirely ignored male and societal responsibility in sexual violence. Lastly, they have perpetuated the media’s objectification of women and alienation of the rapist, two of the underlying causes of rape culture.

A relatively new program out of Washington, D.C. titled Men Can Stop Rape, uses the social ecological model advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention incorporating the complex interaction between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors (13). Its mission is to mobilize “male youth to prevent men's violence against women” (13). It helps to “build young men's capacity to challenge harmful aspects of traditional masculinity, to value alternative visions of male strength, and to embrace their vital role as allies with women and girls in fostering healthy relationships and gender equity” (13). This program is the first of its kind. Other prevention programs need to follow suit focusing on the male population, working together with women, to take responsibility for the actions of their gender and empower them to counteract the societal norms propagated by the media to end the cycle of rape endemic in American society.


1. A Rape Prevention Program in an Urban Area: Community Action Strategies to Stop Rape. Signs: Journal of Women in Color and Society 1980; 5(3):S238-S241
2. Anderson, L. `1. Journal of College Student Development 1998.
3. AWARE: Arming Women Against Rape & Endangerment.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evaluability Assessment of the Rape Prevention and Education Program: Summary of Findings and Recommendations. Atlanta, GA: Division of Violence Prevention, 2005.
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Sexual Violence in the United States. Atlanta, GA: The Rape Prevention and Education Program, 2004.
6. Fisher, B. Cullen, F. Daigle, L. The discovery of acquaintance rape: the salience of methodological innovation and rigor. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2005; 20(4):493-500.
7. Flores, S. Hartlaub, M. Reducing rape-myth acceptance in male college students: A meta-analysis of intervention studies. Journal of College Student Development 1998.
8. Foubert, J. Newberry, J. Effects of two versions of an empathy-based rape prevention program on fraternity men’s survivor empathy, attitudes, and behavioral intent to commit rape or sexual assault. Journal of College Student Development 2006; 47:133-148.
9. Gerber, G. Cherneski, L. Sexual aggression toward women: reducing the
prevalence. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2006; 1087:35-46.
10. Gidycz, C . Lynn, S J. Rich, C L. Marioni, N L. Loh, C. Blackwell, L M. Stafford, J. Fite, R. Pashdag, J. The evaluation of a sexual assault risk reduction program: a multisite investigation. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology 2001; 69(6):1073-8.
11. Hall, R. It can happen to you: rape prevention in the age of risk management. Hypatia 2004; 19(3):1-19.
12. Maryland Family Health Administration. Rape and Sexual Assault Prevention Program. MA: Maryland Family Health Administration.
13. Men Can Stop Rape.
14. Haskell, M. From Reverence to Rape. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
15. Edberg, M. Essentials of Health Behavior: Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2003.
16. Film: “Killing Us Softly 3” by Jean Kilbourne, 1999.
17. Date Rape Prevention. Truman State University: Kirksville, MO.
18. University of Illinois.
19. University of California, Santa Cruz (USCS) Rape Prevention Education.

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  • At December 14, 2007 at 6:59 AM , Anonymous Jaffy said...

    These are powerful arguments on an important topic. You should go on TV!

  • At December 19, 2007 at 6:39 PM , Anonymous Christelle said...

    Interesting topic!!!! I think this is an excellent paper and your arguments are outstanding. I argree with Jaffy you should go on TV lol


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