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Shifting our Thinking About Sexual Violence: Focus on Perpetration by Susan Iverson

The #MeToo movement has brought attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault in workplaces like the entertainment industry, government and health care, as well as our schools (White, 2017). Yet, sexual harassment doesn’t just suddenly happen. Rather, these negative behaviors are modeled throughout today’s society. Sexual violence, which I use as an umbrella term inclusive of rape, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, among other forms of sexual harassment (Henry, n.d.), has its roots in our gendered society. Gendered messages are not necessarily the issue; what’s problematic are the value judgments that convey differential worth to the voices and actions of boys and girls (Johnson, 2006). This is most blatantly evident in the gender wage gap that continues to pay men (on average) more than women for the same work.This socially constructed gendered hierarchy produces a continuum of sexual violence. On one end, we see how gendered language is used as a weapon: powerful women are called bitches, and effeminate boys are harassed for ‘acting like a girl’. At the other end of the continuum is the “epidemic” of sexual violence (White, 2017). A majority of girls and women report being sexually harassed. A recent study reported that nearly half of all high school students report being sexually harassed, with ten percent of girls and 3 percent of boys being sexually assaulted (NCWGE, 2017). This reality leaves many “at risk of becoming a statistic, having their education derailed, or suffering severe trauma or suicide” (Stein, 2018, para. 3). As Johnson observes, this epidemic yields “patterns of chronic fear and avoidance as women and girls learn to circumscribe their lives in order to reduce the odds of being singled out” for sexual violence (p. 58).

Strategies for preventing sexual violence are generally considered in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary approaches (DeGue, Valle, Holt, Massetti, Matjasko, & Tharp, 2014). Tertiary prevention defines the problem; puts in place mechanisms to adjudicate the problem; and acts as a deterrent for future offenses (Iverson & Issadore, 2018). Secondary prevention provides an immediate response through victim-centered care and seeks to reduce risk through educational programming (Iverson & Issadore, 2018).

For decades, prevention efforts have been primarily tertiary and secondary approaches (at times under the guise of primary prevention). An unintended consequence has been that prevention efforts have focused primarily on those who are victimized. Interventions have been concerned for women’s vulnerability, distress, and the inability of women to remain safe, rather than with the violence itself (Iverson, 2006). Sexual violence then has a ubiquity to it, as something that is “normal and must be [socially] endured” (Stein, 2018, para. 5).

A “shift in focus” to primary prevention, focused on stopping perpetration rather than victimization, is needed (ATSA, 2011). Dominant ways of thinking about the problem of sexual violence, evident in tertiary and secondary prevention, treat symptoms. Such efforts (as described above), focused on risk reduction and victim support, unwittingly or purposefully put the problem of sexual violence on those who are potential victims; that they (potential victims) should be mindful of what they wear, where they go, and how much they drink. Behaviors may be dismissed, misinterpreted, or uninterpreted as playful, flirting, or blamed on alcohol.

A shift in thinking however – to cease perpetration of sexual violence – is not that easy. Yet, scholars are elucidating possibilities for primary prevention with explicit focus on power and power inequalities (Abramsky et al., 2014; DeGue et al., 2014). For instance, Hong (2000) argued the potential for expanding male students’ conceptions of manhood as a tool in preventing sexual violence. A change in mindset would ask questions about an institution’s policies and practices that produce the conditions that make harassment possible, and normative. It would explore how to change these practices to produce equitable outcomes. It would facilitate cognitive shifts in those who are socialized into hegemonic masculinity that privileges violence (DeGue et al., 2014).

My own work, focusing on sexual violence policies and programming, similarly calls for shifts in the way we think about solving entrenched social problems. For nearly two decades, I drafted policies and facilitated prevention programming for sexual assault and relationship abuse. However, I began to ask questions about the persistence of the problem and to wonder how prevention efforts might be unwittingly complicit with the problem; I sought to uncover taken-for-granted assumptions about the problem of sexual violence, and dominant conceptions of masculinity and femininity, embedded in my work. More specifically, I wondered how dominant ways of thinking about gender might be framing (and constraining) prevention efforts.

In one study, I analyzed one of the most engaging prevention programs offered to university students, which uses theatre as a tool to raise awareness and change attitudes. Skits are performed about a wide range of issues, from depression to study skills, and enable the audience to experience situations they may encounter, or have already encountered. I analyzed scripts from this theatre-based sexual violence prevention. Analysis revealed dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity shaping images of men as heroes and abusers and women as vulnerable and victims. As a result, rape prevention education may have the unintended consequence of reinforcing myths about rape (Iverson, 2006). More recently, in collaboration with an undergraduate student, I extended that inquiry about sexual violence prevention to an analysis of the Walk a Mile in her Shoes (WaM) program (Kamis & Iverson, 2016). This is a program that aims to encourage men to combat sexual violence, but we found that it did more to reinforce gender inequalities then it did to disrupt hegemonic masculinity (Kamis & Iverson, 2016). Walkers were largely motivated to participate to support a worthy cause and have fun; however, the “fun” involved with wearing heels reduced WaM to a parody of doing femininity. Further, the event falls short on developing feminist activist behaviors.

Finally, I investigated how sexual assault is portrayed within sexual violence policies. Here too, analysis exposed how policy assumptions can end up undermining the intended outcome (Iverson, 2015, 2018). These practices construct victims as vulnerable and at-risk for sexual violence and situate them as dependent on the institution to keep them safe. Paradoxically, policies identify institutional agents upon whom victims must rely; this is the same institution that failed to prevent sexual violence or keep individuals safe from its prevalence. So what might be done? A cognitive shift must occur to identify and intervene at the root cause of sexual violence (Harris & Linder, 2017; Linder, 2018; Iverson, 2015). Some examples of what this might look like include:

– Begin “noticing and seeing” (Bensimon, 2005, p. 105). A shift in our focus calls us to ask different questions about the work we’re doing. For instance, we cannot only ask practitioners to think about what makes some individuals at-risk, or only design interventions that reduce risks. We must also ask what makes a particular setting or environment risky, particularly for some more than others? We will continue to intervene when an incident occurs, but we must also ask questions about what made a space unsafe; what is embedded within our taken-for-granted practices, policies, and routines that produce inequitable environments for so many? One program or one policy won’t answer that question. But all these possible solutions and more may begin to answer the question when we ask it. We must ask about sexism, misogyny and patriarchy and their how they give rise the conditions that normalize sexual violence.

– Practitioners must adopt “power consciousness” (Linder, 2018); this pays attention to, asks questions about, and works to change dynamics that operate on an individual, institutional, and socio-cultural level. This can include asking questions, such as who has the power in this system; who benefits (and who does not benefit) from the ways things are currently operating; and whose voices are heard – and missing – from conversations and practices about sexual violence? Inextricably linked with this is how privilege and advantage operate systemically (i.e. that white victims and perpetrators receive benefits from their white skin privilege). Further, an “explicit focus on power…and power inequalities” (Abramsky et al., 2014, p. 15) shifts our attention to perpetration, as well as on how to break the link between masculinity and violence.

– Focus on primary prevention of perpetration. As Linder and Harris (2017) observe, “Perpetrators — not alcohol, not being at the wrong place at the wrong time, not miscommunication — are solely responsible for sexual violence” (para. 16). Yet, as I found in my analyses of sexual violence policies (Iverson, 2015, 2018) and prevention programming (Iverson, 2006), perpetrators remain largely invisible. Thus, we knowingly or unwittingly place responsibility for ending sexual violence on potential victims, bystanders, and advocates. Practitioners must exercise mechanisms to make perpetration visible. For instance, how might scenarios used in theatre-based prevention scripts perform intentional, premeditated, coercive, and manipulative behaviors — what Lisak and Miller (2002) calls the “undetected rapist”? I realize this a controversial idea, but that’s exactly the normative assumptions about our prevention efforts (and images) we must disrupt. Primary prevention efforts must redefine dominant constructions of masculinity that shape men’s role as oppressors of women (both actively and passively).
A cognitive shift is not easy. Further, this isn’t “either/or” work. We cannot stop the important work that’s currently underway. We are not going to cease supporting victims, training bystanders, or conducting risk reduction programming. Rather, we must do “both/and” – we must do what we’re currently doing and do what we’re not sure how to do. As we think differently about the problem, we’ll begin to notice how the problem is woven into the fabric of our daily lives and we’ll take steps toward more equitable environments.


Abramsky, T., Devries, K., Kiss, L., Nakuti, J., Kyegombe, N., Starmann, E. & Watts, C. (2014). Findings from the SASA! Study: A cluster randomized controlled trial to assess the impact of a community mobilization intervention to prevent violence against women and reduce HIV risk in Kampala, Uganda. BMC medicine, 12(1), 1-17.

Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA). (2001, May). Sexual abuse as a public health problem. Available at 

Bensimon, E.M. (2005). Closing the achievement gap in higher education: An organizational learning perspective. New Directions for Higher Education, no. 131, 99-111.

DeGue, S., Valle, L. A., Holt, M. K., Massetti, G. M., Matjasko, J. L., & Tharp, A. T. (2014). A systematic review of primary prevention strategies for sexual violence perpetration. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19(4), 346-362.

Harris, J., & Linder, C. (Eds.) (2017). Intersections of identity and sexual violence on campus: Centering minoritized students’ experiences. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Henry, N. (n.d.). Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment: What’s the difference? Retrieved from

Hong, L. (2000). Toward a transformed approach to prevention: Breaking the link between masculinity and violence. Journal of American College Health, 48(6), 269-279.

Iverson, S.V., & Issadore, M. (2018). Going upstream: Policy as sexual violence prevention and response. In K. Edwards & J. Jessup-Anger (Eds.), Addressing sexual violence in higher education and student affairs (pp. 59-69). New Directions for Student Services, 2018(161). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Iverson, S.V. (2015). The risky subject: A policy discourse analysis of sexual assault policies in higher education. In S. C. Wooten, & R. W. Mitchell (Eds.), The crisis of campus sexual violence: Critical perspectives on prevention and response (pp. 15-32). New York: Routledge.

Iverson, S.V. (2006). Performing gender: A discourse analysis of theatre-based sexual violence prevention programs. NASPA Journal, 43(3), 547-577.

Johnson, A. (2006). Privilege, power and difference (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Kamis, K. & Iverson, S.V. (2016). “Powerful or playful? A critical case study of Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” In S. C. Wooten, & R. W. Mitchell (Eds.), Preventing sexual violence on campus: Challenging traditional approaches through program innovation (pp. 86-104). New York: Routledge.

Linder, C. (Ed.) (2018). Sexual Violence on Campus. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Linder, C. & Harris, J. (2017, December 1). Power-conscious approaches to campus sexual violence. Inside Higher Ed [online]. Available at

Lisak, D., & Miller, P.M. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1), 73-84.

NCWGE. (2017). Ending sexual harassment and assault: Effective measures protect all students. In Title IX at 45: Advancing Opportunity through Equality in Education. Washington, DC: National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education. Available at

Stein, M. (2018, February 6). #MeTooK12: Teens are speaking out about assault and harassment in schools. Ms. Magazine [online] Available at

White, G.B. (2017, October 21). America’s sexual-assault epidemic. The Atlantic [online]. Available at


Author biography

Susan V. Iverson is a Professor of Higher Education Leadership at Manhattanville College. Dr. Iverson has held several faculty and administrative positions at various colleges and universities, including as tenured faculty at Kent State University for 10 years where she was also an affiliated faculty member with both the Women’s Studies and LGBT Studies Programs. Iverson earned her doctorate in higher educational leadership, with a concentration in women’s studies, from the University of Maine, where she also served as adjunct faculty in both Higher Educational Leadership and Women’s Studies; and worked as Associate Director of Safe Campus Project, a federally grant-funded initiative to address interpersonal violence on campus. Prior to becoming faculty, Iverson worked in student affairs administration for more than ten years in Massachusetts and Virginia. Iverson’s research interests include equity and diversity, the status of women in higher education, feminist pedagogy, and the role of policy (e.g., sexual violence) in shaping perceptions and culture. She has two co-edited volumes: Feminist community engagement: Achieving praxis (Palgrave, 2014) and Reconstructing policy analysis in higher education: Feminist poststructural perspectives (Routledge 2010).