Engaging men in sexual assault prevention

ACSSA Wrap No. 14 – November 2013


Prevention of sexual assault has traditionally been a space occupied by women - both as educators and as the audience for messages on how to keep safe from the threat of sexual violence. More recently, the principles informing prevention of sexual assault have shifted to acknowledge the importance of men as facilitators/educators and as participants in sexual assault prevention programs.1 This is because the social and economic determinants of (hetero) sexual violence are:

  • gender inequality between men and women;
  • subscription to gender norms and stereotypes;
  • hostile attitudes towards women;
  • cultures in organisational and peer contexts that are based on masculine norms; and
  • social and institutional cultures which accept gender inequality and gender stereotypes as “normal” or “natural”, or at least fail to condemn them (VicHealth, 2009).

Rather than the focus being specifically on reducing sexual violence, the focus is on creating gender equality, interrogating gender stereotypes, using information to correct hostile attitudes toward women, and supporting a shift in cultural and institutional attitudes around gender and sexuality (VicHealth, 2007; World Health Organization [WHO], 2010).

These aims are very much a whole-of-society approach and therefore it is logical to encourage and empower men to be part of the sexual assault prevention process. It takes both men and women to achieve gender equality, to foster respectful relationships and to support a safer community. This has led to questions of how best to engage men in the sexual assault prevention space. Several prevention organisations have begun the work of recruiting and engaging men (see Tables 3–5 for more details). This paper presents the shifts in how the prevention of sexual assault has been conceptualised and how this evolution has led to the idea that engaging men in prevention is an important next step in the fight to reduce sexual violence.

In the process of engaging men, it is important to highlight the difference between engaging men as facilitators/educators and as recipients of prevention messages or participants in prevention programs. The concept of men’s resistance to sexual assault prevention messages is an issue for consideration in the prevention field. Messages may come in the form of a newspaper story, billboards, education campaigns on television, or programs for first time parents. Resistance to messages may come from men’s discomfort in talking about issues of gender and sex, or they may be an articulation of a rejection of the ideas included in prevention messages - such as the need to break down gender stereotypes and work toward gender equality.

Strategies to overcome resistance by seeking to relate to men in masculine language and via “masculine” interests (e.g., sport) may create contradictory prevention messages. For example, prevention strategies may use stereotypical masculine language or concepts while simultaneously telling men that violence and aggression are not acceptable. This is exemplified by the prevention campaign “My Strength is Not for Hurting” created by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA, 2005), which uses men’s strength both as a gender stereotype and as an expression of anti-violence - it is examined later in this Wrap.

Although there is no clear empirical evidence that engaging men will be of benefit to the field of sexual assault prevention, there are a number of reasons to consider it a good next step. Any direct indications that prevention is working as a strategy may take years to become apparent, and will most likely be evident in sexual assault incidence and prevalence statistics, as well as crime statistics. This Wrap will consider some of the concerns around engaging men, taking for granted that engaging men is a worthwhile strategy in this space. Therefore the issues considered in this paper are about men’s engagement, their possible resistance and any correctives to resistance.

This Wrap is aimed at practitioners working in the field; those who facilitate prevention programs, or do community outreach for the purpose of preventing sexual violence against women. The paper will explore all of the issues outlined above in five sections. The first will be a brief history of prevention of sexual assault and how we got here. The second section explores men’s role in sexual assault prevention. The third section is a discussion on what is meant by engagement. The fourth section examines the challenges in engaging men and includes an exemplar of the tensions in challenging gender stereotypes while using the same stereotypes to draw in a male audience. The final section presents implications for practice.

The paper includes the comments of several practitioners (see Box 1) currently working in the field of primary and tertiary prevention, or those currently implementing prevention policies in their workplace. These stories from the field are an important component of our understanding of how sexual assault and violence prevention actually work on the ground, considering that practice may sometimes outdate theory, particularly for primary prevention where there are more men involved than ever doing prevention work in their day-to-day jobs (R. Imbesi, personal communication, 20 May 2013).

Box 1: Consultations with practitioners in sexual assault prevention

ACSSA consulted with five practitioners from four organisations working in both primary and tertiary prevention, or currently implementing prevention policies in their workplace. Their responses to questions about their work are included throughout the paper.

Moreland City Council, Victoria

Andrew Day: Director of Social Development for Moreland City Council

Moreland City Council, like many councils in Victoria and around Australia, is committed to supporting women and children in their communities. Moreland City Council have made a commitment to prevent domestic violence in their area by focusing on increasing gender equity through policies such as the fair and equitable access to sporting activities for women and girls. The building of gender equity sits firmly in the primary prevention framework.

No To Violence, Victoria

Rodney Vlais: Policy and Practice Coordinator

No To Violence, the Male Family Violence Prevention Association, is the Victorian peak body for men's behaviour change programs, providing training, professional development, resources, standards or practice and sector advocacy. No To Violence also works in the primary prevention arena. They work closely with other family violence agencies and align themselves with women's agencies in the family violence sector. Men's behaviour change programs usually work with men who are using violent and controlling behaviour against women. Clients can be self-referred or court mandated to participate in the program.

Women's Health Victoria

Petra Begnell: Program and Strategic Development Manager
Rose Durey: Policy and Health Promotion Manager

Women's Health Victoria is a not-for-profit organisation focused on improving the lives of Victorian women. Women's Health Victoria run "Take a Stand", which is a workplace primary prevention program that encourages individuals to speak up when they hear or see attitudes or behaviours that support violence against women.

YMCA, Victoria

Scott Holmes: Healthy Workplaces Senior Advisor, YMCA

YMCA Victoria has begun a process to introduce prevention training to managers and senior staff in the workplace. YMCA has 150 sites across Victoria and close to 6,000 staff and volunteers. The focus will be on primary prevention through the Preventing Violence Against Women Program, which seeks to build capacity in the organisation and it's employees to prevent gendered violence.

Note: A range of projects and educators across the country were approached. The above four projects - which coincidentally were all from Victoria - were the ones that responded and were able to speak to us. If you are aware of other prevention programs with men, do please let us know about them.

A brief history of sexual assault prevention strategies

There are three distinct levels of prevention as they relate to sexual assault and violence against women: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary prevention of sexual assault and domestic and family violence is concerned with preventing violence before it occurs. “Some primary prevention strategies focus on changing behaviour and/or building the knowledge and skills of individuals” (VicHealth, 2007, p. 9). Primary prevention began as awareness raising, such as an advertising campaign on television2 and billboards, or information sessions at work organised by human resources departments. However, it now goes beyond that. Primary prevention now aims to change attitudes and behaviours.

Quadara and Wall (2012) elucidated:

Primary prevention is concerned with collective behaviour change rather than only about increasing knowledge or awareness about sexual assault (though it may do this as part of the process). This is an important distinction. The overall goal of primary prevention is to reduce the actual incidence of sexual assault within the population. Working backwards then, it targets the factors that give rise to, or create the conditions for gender-based violence, including sexual assault, and influence behaviour. These conditions include the structural barriers of gender inequality and gender socialisation, and social norms that enable gender-based violence. Essentially, primary prevention must strengthen protective factors and overcome risk factors that facilitate sexual assault. Increasing knowledge or awareness of sexual assault may well be a characteristic of primary prevention but it is not a sufficient outcome.3 (p. 5)

Secondary prevention refers to early intervention strategies targeted at groups or individuals who may indicate a risk of perpetration or have perpetrated violence or controlling behaviour (possibly) for the first time. Similarly, secondary prevention may target groups who are identified as at risk of being victimised or of perpetrating violence and/or sexual assault.

Tertiary prevention relates to interventions after violence has occurred. This can include legal sanctions for perpetrators and therapeutic interventions for victim/survivors and perpetrators. A tertiary prevention initiative explored in this paper is men’s behaviour change programs. Men’s behaviour change programs seek to educate men on the inappropriateness of sexual and physical violence and to help them change their thinking and behaviour toward more equitable and respectful relationships with women. Men can volunteer for behaviour change programs or may be required to attend due to court order.

The history of sexual assault prevention conceptual frameworks has been clearly outlined by Moira Carmody (2009). Carmody indicated the following evolution in the thinking related to sexual violence against women.

Table 1: A brief history of theoretical approaches to sexual assault prevention
Decade Feminist and theoretical approaches to sexual assault prevention - shifts over time


  • Feminism discussed sexual violence as a matter of public, rather than private concern.
  • Services and policies were being funded and established to deal with the issues of sexual violence against women. Funding directed toward specialist responses, ranging from sexual assault counselling, to police and health services.
  • The language of gender tended to deny the diversity amongst women and men and positioned women as victims and men as perpetrators.
  • A growing understanding that many women were sexually assaulted by men they know.


  • Sexual violence was considered a highly gendered crime. Lack of understanding that masculinity was also a gender and that men could be sexually victimised.
  • Eventually diversity amongst women was recognised. This means an acknowledgement that different women experienced sexual violence in different ways and required different responses.
  • Masculinities studies began to emerge, acknowledging that there were many ways to enact masculinity - men’s groups formed, looking for a way to understand the causes and responses to sexual violence


  • A more complex understanding of gender was explored in the 1990s. Gender and its intersections with race, class, sexuality and age informed prevention efforts and understandings of how men and women interacted amongst themselves and with each other.


  • A strong focus on tertiary prevention characterised the early 2000s as a response to a greater understanding of the long-term harm of sexual violence.
  • Under-reporting of sexual violence continued however, meaning that there was no attention on how to intervene, or indeed prevent sexual violence before it occurred.
  • Collection of data and evidence around the underlying factors which led to sexual violence led to a greater focus on primary prevention as a strategy.

Adapted from Carmody (2009)

Prevention strategies also shifted, evolving beyond the initial spotlight on women’s behaviour change that was positioned as a risk avoidance strategy. Risk avoidance is concerned with changing women’s “high-risk” behaviour and constructs all men as potentially dangerous (Carmody, 2009). Carmody stated that women have been targeted for prevention messages in ways that “individualised approaches to sexual assault, fostering fear in women, a denial of gender and ignoring the broader aspects of violent societies” (p. 9). For example, historically women have been encouraged to wear modest clothing, avoid walking alone at night, learn self-defence and avoid engaging in behaviour which may encourage men’s “uncontrollable” lust, amongst other strategies to avoid sexual violence (Piccigallo, Lilley, & Miller, 2012).

These forms of prevention of sexual assault are based on notions that women are responsible for their sexual victimisation; rather than the perpetrators of violence being held responsible, and being targeted for intervention (Piccigallo et al., 2012). These forms of prevention also ignore intimate partner and acquaintance sexual assault, intergenerational sexual assault, and sibling sexual assault (Cashmore & Shackel, 2013; Stathopoulos, 2012; Tarczon, 2012; Wall, 2012). Targeting women’s behaviour does very little to change the behaviour of those perpetrating sexual and physical violence, or the structures and determinants that allow sexual violence to occur.

At the same time as the above shifts were occurring, economists, social justice advocates and public health organisations around the world began to consider the social and economic costs of domestic violence and sexual assault. An issue that was once considered a “private” affair came to be seen as a public health concern. Table 2 outlines some of the reports released and the momentum of understanding that began to build around the issue of the harms of interpersonal violence and the importance of preventing harm before it occurred.

Table 2: The costs and determinants of violence against women
Year Organisation Report Findings/recommendations


World Health Organization (WHO)

World Report on Violence and Health

This report named sexual assault alongside other forms of interpersonal violence. The report presented interpersonal violence as a public health issue that requires attention at the individual, relationship, organisational and societal levels with a focus on prevention. The report offered nine recommendations, including the need to enhance the capacity for data collection on violence, to promote primary prevention, to enhance the response to victims of violence, to promote gender and social equality, and to increase collaboration and knowledge transfer on violence prevention (WHO, 2002).


Access Economics

The Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy: Part 1

Access Economics were commissioned by the Australian Government’s Office for the Status of Women to provide a “comprehensive economic estimation of the cost of domestic violence” (Access Economics, 2004, p. vi). The purpose of the report was to raise awareness of the costs of domestic violence. The report estimated the cost of violence for the period 2002–03 at $8.1 billion (Access Economics, 2004, p. vii). The estimated social and economic costs took into account further harm such as drug and alcohol misuse, juvenile crime, and the ongoing costs (such as economic productivity and social participation) to the community when women and children are exposed to domestic violence.


Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth)

The health costs of violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence

VicHealth released a report detailing the health costs of intimate partner violence. One of the aims of the report was to raise awareness. The report also named the prevention of intimate partner violence as a goal. Although the reasons for violence are complex, one important underlying factor to consider for prevention efforts is the unequal power distribution between men and women (VicHealth, 2004). The report presented intimate partner violence as requiring equal attention to other public health issues such as “high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity” (VicHealth, 2004, p. 30). It also prioritised prevention as a key strategy for alleviating the burden (economic and social) for current and future generations.



Preventing violence before it occurs: A framework and background paper to guide the primary prevention of violence against women in Victoria

VicHealth built on previous work by WHO and Access Economics in presenting an ecological public health model framework for the primary prevention of violence. The ecological model sets out different environments and levels in which to promote the prevention of violence. It was stated in the report that the message of anti-violence must be consistent for individuals, organisations, and society and this should occur in schools, social clubs, workplaces, sports clubs, the media, and government. The messages of prevention centred on the need for gender equality, the building of non-violent social norms and respectful relationships between men and women (VicHealth, 2007). The framework comes from the above mentioned reports and evidence which indicates that gender inequality, hostile attitudes to women and a subscription to gender norms/stereotypes are underlying determinants in the perpetration of violence against women and children.



Preventing intimate partner and sexual violence against women: Taking action and generating evidence

WHO called for more evidence to be generated on prevention programs in order that effectiveness may be assessed. This report also clearly outlined steps needed to begin primary prevention work. Namely the report states that legislative change that supports and drives individual and organisational change toward male–female equity is required for the reduction of intimate partner and sexual violence (WHO, 2010).

The reports in Table 2 demonstrate that sexual assault affects everyone, from individuals to communities, and invariably impacts all of society (Morrison, Quadara, & Boyd, 2007). There are health, economic, and social costs associated with sexual violence. To leave men out of the prevention space is to mobilise only half of the potential available resources in the reduction of sexual violence. Further, as elucidated by Flood (2006), “prevention must address men because largely it is men who perpetrate this violence” (p. 26). It would also not be possible to foster greater gender equity, respectful relationships, and decreased subscription to gender norms and stereotypes without including both men and women in this goal. Engaging men and women in prevention efforts is about seeking to restructure the social and cultural norms that are the determinants of sexual assault. For these changes to be realised, men are needed to join women in becoming both the communicators and the recipients of prevention messages and initiatives. A good place to start is asking what role men may play in the prevention of sexual violence against women.


1 This paper is concerned with sexual assault perpetrated by men against women. It is not meant to suggest that men are not victims of female perpetrated sexual assault, nor that sexual assault does not occur in same-sex relationships.

2 For example, the television awareness raising campaign “Violence against Women. Australia says No” <www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCCt-Bo07oc>

3 For a more comprehensive account of sexual assault primary prevention, please see: What is effective primary prevention in sexual assault: Translating the evidence for action (Quadara & Wall, 2012).