“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which the flower grows, not the flower. - Alexander Den Heijer
Many current approaches to preventing sexual and gender based violence are informed by the philosophy of risk reduction. Within the world of risk reduction, outreach, education, and prevention are aimed at people who are likely to experience harm. By informing people about how to avoid being sexually assaulted and/or gender-based violence, these programs hope to reduce the occurrence and impact of sexual and gender-based violence.
For example, risk reduction might involve messaging that recommends people at risk of sexual assault (generally women or trans* and gender nonconforming communities) avoid walking alone at night. Another recent, highly publicized risk reduction effort was the development of nail polish that changes color when dipped in a drink that has been laced with GHB. Generally, these efforts are developed with good intentions and implementation may help people feel safer and less at risk.
From a public health perspective, risk reduction efforts fall short of addressing the causes of sexual and gender-based violence. Because they place the burden of safety on the people who are harmed, rather than on those who cause harm, long term eradication of sexual and gender based violence is unlikely. In addition, there are very valid concerns that risk reduction may contribute to a culture in which it is believed that people who experience sexual and gender-based violence have done something to contribute to their violation.
In order to address these concerns, we believe risk reduction goals must go hand-in-hand with harm reduction practices. Harm reduction philosophies recognize that the onus to create safer & healthier communities falls on all community members, not just those who are likely to experience adverse effects. As a result, harm reduction programming seeks to identify, understand, and collaborate with those groups and individuals who may cause harm and/or bear silent witness as harm is done, as well as with those who have been harmed.
Approaching our work from a harm reduction lens allows us to reexamine issues of sexual and gender-based violence within the larger social-ecological context, identifying the adverse impacts of exposure to violence (social, psycho-emotional, physical, academic, economic, etc…) as well as identifying the factors that contribute to the persistence of sexual and gender-based violence.
While we recognize the contributions that risk reduction philosophies have made to the efforts to end sexual and gender-based violence, we work to create programming that is primarily informed by harm reduction practices. In doing so, we invite the whole Harvard community to partner with us in our efforts to create a healthier, safer, more respectful and inclusive community.
To that end, the most effective way to end sexual and gender based violence is to know your own beliefs, needs, and preferences, while making choices that are respectful of the autonomy of others. Practice consent in all your interactions. Learn how to interrupt the social constructs that contribute to sexual violence and how to intervene when you hear problematic attitudes or see problematic behaviors.