The still-unfolding stories—across all industries and sectors—only confirm what too many of us already know: sexual violence and harassment are pervasive at all levels of our society.
A few years ago, we identified a set of norms that increase the risk of sexual violence. Norms shape our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, and influence our sense of what’s acceptable and not acceptable within a community or society at large. When we understand norms as a key factor that shapes the likelihood of sexual violence and harassment, we can see more clearly what needs to change and which strategies will be effective. The norms that increase the risk of sexual violence and harassment promote rigid gender norms that associate masculinity with control and femininity with compliance; abuse of power over others; aggression and violence; and the expectation that sexual violence should be treated as a private problem, not a public concern.
Here are some ways these norms manifest themselves in our society:
- Harmful norms about masculinity: Rigid gender norms about masculinity that promote domination, control, and risk-taking are expressed in workplaces and other settings as an expectation that men and others will push rather than respect boundaries, e.g., “No means try harder.”
- Harmful norms about femininity: Rigid gender norms about femininity that promote compliance and sacrifice show up in the workplace as an expectation that women and others will accept and even blame themselves for boundary violations, e.g., “Go along to get along.”
- Norms that support abuse of power: Our society places a lot of value on claiming and maintaining power, which too often gets expressed as power over other people. Harmful norms about power promote exploitation by people with more power (i.e., adults, bosses, documented residents, and citizens) of those with less power (children, employees, undocumented residents), e.g., “What do you expect? That’s what strong leaders do.”
- Tolerance of aggression and violence: Violence is pervasive in our society and is often deployed as a mechanism for addressing conflict or resolving problems. Norms that promote tolerance for aggression and violence can be seen in behaviors that excuse people who act violently, e.g., “He’s the star athlete of the school, and we need to let him play,” and blame victims, e.g., “Why was she there? Why did she wait so long to say anything?”
- Sexual violence as a private matter, not a public concern: A healthy respect for privacy can turn into harmful inaction when sexual violence is erroneously conflated with private sexuality. In schools, workplaces, and other settings, peers and people in authority who adhere to this norm turn away from what’s happening, e.g., “It’s none of my business.”
These and other norms interact with and exacerbate one another, especially when multiple forms of power inequity coincide—for instance, in the service industry, where women, people of color, people with low incomes, and people with undocumented immigration status are overrepresented.
Norms are reinforced by culture, policies, and modeling by leaders. Powerful individuals in government, entertainment, sports, the media, and other arenas of public life—due to their visibility and perceived credibility—can promulgate these damaging norms, through comments and actions, or inaction.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Norms can and do change. We only need to think of the shift from smoke-filled workplaces, restaurants, and airplanes to the largely smoke-free air we breathe today to see how much can change. We need this kind of sea change in norms when it comes to sexual violence and harassment. We need to move from norms that reinforce inequalities of power to equity; from tolerance of abuse to accountability and justice; and from rigid and harmful norms of masculinity and femininity to a more expansive understanding of gender, rooted in respect for all human beings to live free from harassment and coercion.
A call to action
To change norms, we need to think big and adopt comprehensive strategies, from building the skills of individuals to organizing within coalitions for broad organizational and policy changes.
Our Spectrum of Prevention tool helps identify effective, multi-level approaches to shift norms and create environments where sexual harassment and violence are less likely to occur. When businesses, schools, faith communities, athletic leagues, government, and other sectors all take action, dramatic shifts in norms are possible.
Below are some examples of strategies to prevent sexual violence and harassment across the Spectrum:
Influencing policy and legislation
Enacting laws and policies that
support healthy community norms and
a violence-free society
Workplaces: Federal, state, and local policies that strengthen economic supports for women and families and reduce poverty, economic insecurity, and power imbalances between women and men can help to prevent sexual violence in workplaces. The ONE FAIR WAGE campaign seeks to abolish the tipped minimum wage, which increases tipped workers’ exposure to exploitation, wage theft, financial insecurity, discrimination, and sexual harassment. Additional examples include Wyoming’s effort to close the gender wage gap (see Fostering Coalitions and Networks) and California’s policy efforts such as AB1978 to promote workplace equity for janitorial workers to stop “rape on the night shift.
”Schools: Schools can adopt interventions to shift norms among students. Through the Shifting Boundaries project, New York City middle schools adopted policies to address sexual harassment and other boundary violations through enforceable “Respecting Boundaries Agreements.” Students who violate others’ boundaries are taught the skills they need to respect victims’ needs and prevent future violations.
Community settings: Through a public policy of “gender mainstreaming,” Vienna, Austria, has undertaken major changes to its public transit system, parks, housing, and streets to address concerns about equal access. This work requires a deep understanding of how people use public resources and what barriers they face, such as safety concerns about poorly lit streets after dark. Designing public spaces with the experiences of the people who use them in mind can foster a sense of safety and belonging, and shut down avenues for harassment.
Changing organizational practices
Adopting regulations and shaping norms
to prevent violence and improve safety
Workplaces: Organizational practices to prevent sexual harassment go beyond mandated online curricula focused on legal definitions and procedures. A holistic organization-wide strategy to ensure a civil, equitable, and inclusive workplace culture includes policies and practices that promote equity and transparency in pay and promotions; training for leadership and supervisors on how to promote a positive climate where employees feel safe and respected; training for staff on how to speak up when witnessing harmful behavior; and consistent action and follow through when staff raise concerns. Futures Without Violence is working with employees and employers, community associations, and anti-violence advocates to develop workplace policies and trainings within low wage industries such as service industries where women, people of color, undocumented immigrants, and people of low income are overrepresented. Workplace policies and practices to promote worker safety and economic security are critical in industries where the extreme power differentials create openings for exploitation and abuse.
Schools: Higher education institutions can implement a range of practices to promote healthy norms and create safer campus environments, including: making changes to how complaints are handled; ensuring that administrators and staff speak up about the importance of the prevention of sexual harassment and violence; integrating prevention programming into student success centers, wellness centers, and other support services; hiring dedicated violence prevention staff; and implementing gender and culturally specific activities with athletics programs, fraternities, sororities, and other student groups.
Fostering coalitions and networks
Bringing together groups and individuals
for broader goals and greater impac
Workplaces: Wyoming consistently has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the United States, with women on average earning 64 cents for every dollar a man earns. The Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is challenging the narrative that the wage gap is a matter of “choice” and is employing a collective impact model to organize and advocate for pay equity. Together with the Wyoming Health Council, these organizations are bringing together partners from across the state to organize around the common goal of closing the gender wage gap.
Schools: In Austin, Texas, the Expect Respect project promotes school environments free from sexual harassment and other forms of violence through coalitions that include school faculty, parents, youth, healthcare providers, and community organizations.
Informing providers who will transmit
skills and knowledge to others and model
Schools: The US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has a number of resources for school staff on how to prevent sex-based harassment, including curricula that demonstrate steps administrators, counselors, and teachers can take to create a learning environment free from harassment through policy and practice changes.
Community: Recognizing the important role that faith leaders play in shaping community norms, ACCESS, a nonprofit organization in Dearborn, Michigan, has partnered for many years with faith leaders in Arab-American communities to build shared understanding and develop and embed culturally-rooted, strengths-based messages about gender equity into their sermons and counseling.
Athletic leagues: High profile athletes are uniquely positioned to model positive behaviors on and off the field to strengthening sports communities’ capacity to create safe environments. A new effort is Raliance’s Sport and Prevention Center, recently launched with a multimillion dollar grant from the National Foot ball League. Changing the way we play and celebrate sports culture holds tremendous potential to create a safer game for players and healthier conceptions of masculinity.
Promoting community education
Reaching groups of people with
information and resources to prevent
violence and promote safety
Community: ACCESS also has a Coordinated Community Response Team—comprised of school staff, administrators, city council members, and religious leaders, as well as community leaders from marginalized groups, such as youth and new immigrants—that promotes gender equity. They focus on the positive outcomes of healthy relationships, safe families, and peaceful communities, and communicate about the positive association between education for girls and these outcomes.
South West PA Says No More in Pennsylvania engages influential people in the community, like athletes and business leaders, to mobilize for healthy gender norms. For example, the organization hosts a corporate leadership conference around the topic of gender-based violence prevention to increase the number of people talking about the issue and build political will for action.
Strengthening individual knowledge and skills
Enhancing an individual’s capability of
preventing violence and promoting safety
Workplaces: Workplace trainings and educational material can help strengthen workers’ knowledge about what is acceptable behavior and what is not to strengthen individual knowledge that sexual harassment is not tolerated at the workplace. The most effective trainings are conducted in-person by people with expertise, and build the capacity of supervisors to create a safe work environment.
Schools: Teaching students to stand up rather than stand by when they see behavior that puts others at risk for sexual violence is an evidence-based approach to changing norms in high school and college settings. Bringing in the Bystander and Green Dot are two programs that teach young people to speak up against sexist language and other behaviors within their peer groups, and reinforce positive social norms, such as stepping in to help others.
We invite practitioners, advocates, and leaders across fields and disciplines to share examples and to engage in a discussion about the power of norms change to prevent sexual violence and harassment. Please send suggestions, comments, and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional Prevention Institute perspectives on sexual harassment prevention: