California Forum

How to prevent sexual harassment and violence before it happens

From left, Tina McKinnor, Sadalia King, Amy Thoma Tan, Jodi Hicks and Sabrina Lockhart are just some of the women who have come forward to talk about their experiences with sexual harassment at the Capitol in Sacramento. Experts in sexual harassment say preventative programs could help.
From left, Tina McKinnor, Sadalia King, Amy Thoma Tan, Jodi Hicks and Sabrina Lockhart are just some of the women who have come forward to talk about their experiences with sexual harassment at the Capitol in Sacramento. Experts in sexual harassment say preventative programs could help. TNS

Filmmakers. Media personalities. Politicians. Every day, stories about sexual harassment spread to new industries. For those of us who’ve been tracking this issue for years, we know that no industry is untouched.

Recent media coverage has been painful to digest for many people who’ve experienced sexual harassment and violence, but also for the people who are realizing for the first time the extent to which it pervades every institution and sector we interact with in our daily lives. This problem is massive and is not abating.

As individuals who have been working on sexual violence prevention for years, we see this as a moment of opportunity. We are in a better place today because of those who have come forward. For this, we especially thank women who work in low-wage service industries, as custodians, food system workers, and domestic workers, who have long advocated to change the conditions that leave workers vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment on the job.

Now we need to seize the moment to move our political, corporate, and community leaders toward action. We need to ensure that people of all genders who have been harmed are safe and that people who have caused suffering change their behavior and make amends.

We also need to prevent these harmful behaviors in the first place. We know a lot about what works to prevent sexual harassment and violence, and we need to move in that direction.

Trainings about what is and isn’t against the law don’t go far enough. We need to start changing the cultures of our workplaces and society as a whole to model respect for people’s boundaries, encourage bystanders to speak up, and make safety for all a shared responsibility.

This must start with leaders at the highest levels in our institutions. Their actions – more than written words in a policy document – shape the norms and behaviors of everyone else in that setting.

We can learn from successful efforts teaching young people how to understand and respect others’ boundaries and personal space, and develop healthy relationships. The well-researched and evaluated program, Shifting Boundaries, for example, does that with middle-school students.

Students examine their school environments and identify where they need to make changes to foster respect and safety. They discuss different behaviors – calling someone a “slut,” mocking someone’s appearance, grabbing butts, etc. – and whether those behaviors are “no big deal” or a “big deal,” meaning they violate school rules.

The program develops “respecting boundaries agreements,” tied to the disciplinary code, to ensure follow through on behavior change when a student violates another’s boundaries. You’d be surprised – or perhaps not – how much adults can learn from this program.

Another strategy to prevent sexual violence recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is to strengthen economic supports for women and families to address poverty, economic insecurity, and power imbalances between women and men. One example is AB 1978, signed into law in 2016, which promotes workplace equity for janitorial workers to stop “rape on the night shift.”

We need more policies like this and broader efforts to address gender inequality and economic inequality, both known risk factors for sexual violence.

We’ve heard a lot about how to respond to incidents after-the-fact. Let’s start talking about – and taking action on – preventing sexual violence and harassment before it ever gets that far.

Lisa Fujie Parks is an associate program director at Prevention Institute, based in Oakland. David S. Lee is director of prevention at the Sacramento-based California Coalition Against Sexual Assault and its national project, PreventConnect. Reach them at lisa@preventioninstitute.org and david@calcasa.org.

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