Harm & Risk Reduction

“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.

Correlating Factors

Gender Inequity

Research shows that in cultures with greater disparity between genders, there is a higher incidence of sexual and relationship violence. Examples of gender inequity can be found in the quality of maternal and child healthcare, wage gaps, occupational segregation, access to affordable childcare, division of household labor, representation in leadership and government, and reinforcement of a gender binary or traditional gender roles.  Many  societies struggle with gender inequity to varying degrees, including the United States.  Gender inequity correlates with gender-based violence because individuals with less access to income, healthcare, and safety tend to occupy a lower social status and benefit from fewer privileges than those with greater access. Additionally, the idea that women and men should present or behave a certain way justifies punishment of those who act outside of these expectations, including rape and relationship violence. 

Alcohol or Drug Use by Perpetrators of Sexual Assault

It is well known that alcohol use by victims of sexual assault is common, especially on college campuses.  We think of alcohol as a drug used to facilitate a sexual assault, or to take advantage of someone intoxicated to commit a sexual assault.  What is less commonly thought of, but equally true, is the role of alcohol in perpetration of sexual assault.  As individuals consume drugs or alcohol, their ability to read cues or judge situations decreases as they shed inhibitions.  They may engage in behavior they might have otherwise reasoned against, or use alcohol as a justification for aggressive sexual behavior based on their beliefs about alcohol's effects on themselves and others who are intoxicated. Research also shows that alcohol exacerbates existing hostile and/or negative attitudes toward gender. It is unacceptable to disregard the well-being or autonomy of others for any reason and we must hold ourselves accountable for our decisions and behavior regardless of our state of intoxication.

Alcohol or Drug Use by Victims of Sexual Assault

Significant research demonstrates that in over 50% of sexual assault incidents, alcohol is involved and more often than not, both the perpetrator and victim have been drinking. Intoxication can occur because the victim is intentionally given drugs or alcohol by an individual (or group) planning an assault, or because they have consumed too much alcohol to knowingly give consent.  On many college campuses (and often in other settings), alcohol use is a common or expected facet of social life.  Gaining access to social spaces, developing friendships, and networking may be reliant on proximity to alcohol and/or willingness to consume alcohol. If decades of research shows us that approximately 50% of sexual assault incidents involve alcohol, then clearly it is not a required factor for sexual assault to occur. Whether an individual chooses to engage in drug or alcohol use should not determine if they are safe from sexual assault.  Abstention from drugs and alcohol does not guarantee safety. 

Inadequate Sexual Health Education

The less we know about healthy sexual and romantic relationships, the more likely people are to disrespect consent and boundaries. Though sexual assault and relationship violence are not the result of ignorance or miscommunication, they are factors that influence how we approach getting and giving consent and the way we show respect for our partners.  In the United States, primary and secondary school sexual health education has been extremely limited.  24 states and the District of Columbia mandate students to receive any sexual health education and of those that do, only 13 require it to be scientifically accurate.  Even when given accurate information about anatomy, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), most curricula leave out the importance of consent, pleasure, and communication.  Political criticism of programs that encourage these discussions claim they condone or increase sexual activity among adolescents.  In reality, states and counties that support abstinence-only sex education see higher rates of sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and STIs.  A 2012 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that more knowledge about sexual health, contraceptives, and pregnancy was directly correlated to a decrease in adolescent risky behavior, such as having sex without contraceptives or barriers. Improving the quality and consistency of sex education would introduce the concept of consent in a neutral setting - prior to sexual encounters and exploration - thus reducing the stigma or awkwardness of verbal giving and receiving of consent. 

Risk Reduction Strategies

Be Respectful

Demonstrating respect helps create a culture of consent and challenge the notion that it is okay to harass or assault someone. 

  • Use correct names and pronouns, how somebody chooses to identify and express their gender is up to them.
  • Comments on someone's appearance or behavior are unnecessary and unkind.  
  • Don't assume you have the right to touch anyone without their permission.  
  • Call out problematic language, jokes, or behaviors when you observe them.


Alcohol and Drug Use

If you are consuming alcohol or drugs, make sure you know you are still able to get consent for your interactions.  If you are unsure you will be able to gauge someone's interest in your attention or affection, ask a friend to watch out for you and hold you accountable.

Host Safe Parties

Think about what drinks you are offering at parties- do your guests have knowledge of what they are consuming?  Are they able to pour their own drinks?  How will you ensure that boundaries of your guests are respected?  It is important to be aware of the environment you are creating so that all individuals feel safe and are able to enjoy themselves without threat of harm.


Learn how to improve communication. Talk to your partner(s) about what you want and do not want in your sexual relationship, even if it's just a one-night stand. If you are unsure whether or not you have consent, ask!