Drawing on Risk Factors Research



Date of Publication
November, 2017

There are many things to consider when designing a prevention program and one of these is research on factors that may increase or decrease the likelihood of sexual violence perpetration. Preventionists can use research findings in combination with community-specific guidance in order to create a tailored program that is also informed by best practice research. This Tip will provide some considerations for preventionists when selecting and including risk factors in a prevention program. Please note these are just suggestions, not a definitive recommendation, for starting the process of drawing on research in prevention program design and implementation.

Initial Considerations

A few considerations when choosing which risk factors to prioritize in a prevention program:

  • What are specific dynamics of sexual violence in the target community that may inform the prevention approach?
  • Which risk factors have the strongest evidence in the research to preventing perpetration?
  • Evidence suggests that it’s most effective to address multiple risk factors within a program. Which risk factors have the strongest relationship and potential for greatest impact when operating in conjunction?
  • Which risk factors have the best chance of being modified given the programs’ scope or intent, resources, and expertise?

Collecting information on the considerations above will be an important first step in program planning (as well as program updates as new evidence and community dynamics change over time). This may involve working with key community stakeholders, conducting a community needs or resource assessment, and consulting research findings and literature reviews.

Washington State specific data

In 2017 the Washington State Department of Health’s RPE program released in a new research synthesis to give more depth and understanding on some risk and protective factors. In this report the author summarizes multiple research findings to narrow down the current CDC list of risk factors and assist in prioritizing which factors the programs in Washington State may want to consider.

Approaching from Health Promotion

Understanding the dynamics of the chosen risk factors is important in the planning and design of a curriculum or program. However, when it comes to the actual programming, it may not be necessary to go in-depth on the ways they are harmful. Preventionists can address these risk factors through a health promotion approach and focus on asset building that fosters healthy skills to counter rape-supportive beliefs and norms. This can be another defining feature separating awareness from prevention. Below are a few examples of positive skill-building approaches to address underlying dynamics of risk factors for perpetration.

Empathetic deficits:

  • Increase the understanding of, and ability to practice, empathy.
  • Skill building to increase emotional health and regulation.
  • Projects that work to increase community connectedness.
  • Teaching and modeling nonviolent communication.
  • Reinforcing social norms of power-sharing, respect, and bodily autonomy.

Acceptance of violence and peer support for sexual aggression:

  • Increase the understanding of, and ability to practice, bystander intervention skills.
  • Social norming campaigns that reinforce community expectations of consent and taking care of everyone.
  • Challenging rape myths and victim blaming.
  • Teaching and modeling nonviolent communication.

Coercive sexual norms and “scoring” approach to sex:

  • Prioritizing comprehensive sexual health education.
  • Teaching skills for open communication and negation.
  • Building skills for deeper understanding of consent,gender equity, and media literacy.

Hostility towards women/femininity, adherence to rigid gender roles, and hyper/hostile masculinity:

  • Building skills for deeper understanding of the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientation.
  • Foster community norms related to gender equity.
  • Reinforcing social norms of power-sharing, respect, and bodily autonomy.

Note of Caution

It's important to remember that risk factors are conditions that may increase the likelihood of perpetrating sexual violence. While evidence suggests that risk increases when there are multiple factors present, there is not data to suggest absolute causation between risk factors and perpetration behavior. We know that perpetration is complex to understand.

It's also important we use a critical lens that centers anti-oppression in our analysis of risk factors. For example, some factors (such as poverty or alcohol use)presented in the literature can lead to problematic assumptions if taken out of context. And that there is a lot to investigate about how these factors have been identified and labeled. Care should be taken when discussing all risk factors, and especially those with the potential for racist and classist bias, with stakeholders.

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