Moving Further Upstream



Date of Publication
September, 2014

In our work to end sexual violence, sometimes best practices in prevention and what communities want to hear about (i.e. awareness and education) are not the same thing. Large school assemblies and tips for staying safe at parties are often welcomed by our communities — these make them feel safe and don't ask too much of them. With limited resources to do our prevention work, it is important that we are able to distinguish between primary prevention and awareness or risk reduction activities. This knowledge also helps us make the argument for primary prevention with our communities.

Perhaps you have already heard of the 9 Principles of Prevention — if not, check them out.

One of these principles is "sufficient dosage", which means participants need to be exposed to enough of the activity for it to have an effect. We have learned that one-time presentations are not effective in creating lasting social change. However, not all multi-session programs meet the parameters of primary prevention either. There are many factors that go into designing a comprehensive primary prevention program. Structure, content, addressing the root causes, and reach of the effort are just some of the factors that we must consider in program design.

So, is it awareness, risk reduction, or primary prevention? Let's break it down.


These activities aim to define sexual violence, illustrate the impact it has on survivors, inform participants how to help a friend, explain legal rights and reporting options, and promote the services offered in the community to survivors. For example:

  • Large community events such as a walk, fundraising gala, or survivor speak-out
  • Visiting a high school classroom over four weeks to deliver educational sessions that present sexual assault statistics, myths vs. facts, information about "date rape" drugs, how to support survivors, and what students should do if they have been sexually assaulted
  • A workshop for parents on what child sexual abuse is, how to identify signs of potential abuse, and how to make a report or access services

Risk Reduction

These activities aim to address risk factors for potential victimization. While these activities may stop some individual incidences of sexual violence, they do not address the prevalence of perpetration at large or work to change the conditions that allow for and support sexual violence. Additionally, these activities place the burden of safety on potential victims, which promotes victim blaming among both communities and survivors themselves. For example:

  • Workshop or educational materials on personal safety strategies such as the buddy system, watching your drink, and carrying keys in your hand
  • Self-defense classes for women
  • Bystander intervention programs that focus on intervening when sexual violence is already in progress or likely to occur

Primary Prevention

These activities aim to prevent initial perpetration of sexual violence. These approaches are theory driven and informed by community needs and resources. They are designed to shift attitudes, behaviors, and norms that support and perpetuate the root causes of violence. Primary prevention programs promote safe and healthy alternatives that are then infused into individual, relational, community, and societal norms. For example:

  • Workshops or classroom series that explores and practices skills related to healthy sexuality, both within and outside of relationships
  • On-going, connected efforts to promote equality, healthy communication, respect, and other qualities important to the developmental needs of young people
  • Bystander intervention programs that give people skills to interrupt oppressive language and work to create a healthy and non-violent community climate
  • Community-led projects that identify specific root causes of violence and long-term, sustainable strategies to reduce and eliminate these

Resources on WCSAP

  • WCSAP's Prevention webpage provides definitions, examples, research, recorded webinars, articles, and much more to support your primary prevention efforts! To learn more about the primary prevention concept of "moving upstream", check out the fun and short video on the bottom of the page.
  • Additionally, WCSAP offers a 5-hour prevention orientation online course. It's free and easy to enroll; visit the WCSAP E-Learning Center

Resources on Other Websites

  • The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance's prevention newsletter "Moving Upstream" is a great source to read more. In fact, this tip was informed by two of these newsletters: Volume 1, Issue 2, June 2005 and Volume 3, Issue 3, December 2007. You can download all of the issues online.