In the past few decades, there has been growing awareness of sexual violence across the United States — from the passage of the Violence Against Women Act to victims sharing their stories on new platforms and garnering more media and public attention. This awareness is mirrored by research that has documented the lifelong impact of sexual abuse on victims. Yet as awareness of sexual abuse and those who abuse has grown, there has been little focus on how to prevent the perpetration of sexual violence.
Traditional law enforcement and criminal justice approaches alone cannot ensure community safety. Conversely, primary prevention strategies alone will not stop sexual abuse. Preventing sexual abuse requires more comprehensive strategies that include addressing behaviors before crimes are perpetrated and effective responses after crimes have been committed. The most effective prevention and response strategies will be individualized — shaped to the types of crimes, the individuals who commit these crimes and the communities where these crimes are committed.
A 2010 National Institute of Justice report described two important prevention concepts that have emerged in the criminal justice field over the past two decades: situational crime prevention and developmental crime prevention.
Situational crime prevention examines the various situations — the conditions, locations, circumstances, policies — that either increase or decrease the risk for a crime to be committed within a given organization, environment or community. This approach has particular relevance for organizations and institutions that work with children, adolescents and young adults.
Situational prevention shifts the deterrence focus from risks of individual perpetrators to exploring the immediate environments that facilitate or inhibit a crime from being committed. Situational crime prevention assumes that the immediate environment is more than a “passive backdrop” and instead plays a fundamental role in shaping behaviors.
Federal funding has supported situational prevention approaches in multiple environments, seeking to address the primary prevention of sexual violence perpetration. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking has funded situational prevention initiatives in college and university campuses as well as in U.S. Olympic and Paralympic organizations. In both environments, situational prevention approaches have enabled these organizations to identify a number of safety risks. Organizations have then developed tailored solutions to address these risks, with minimal time and financial investment.
Developmental crime prevention offers the opportunity to stop the development of sexually problematic behaviors in children or adolescents through early interventions and early response to a wide range of risk factors and behaviors. The developmental approach applies to children in younger, more vulnerable stages of life because research demonstrates that they are more receptive to change than older youth or adults. Sexually problematic behaviors can begin for some children in this stage of life, especially involving peer-to-peer sexual behavior.
All children and adolescents exhibit different developmental and cognitive growth; research has shown that the most effective treatments for youth with sexual behavior problems are individualized and treatment practice is now moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach. Further, developmentally appropriate interventions have a positive impact on reducing sexually problematic behaviors in both children and adolescents. Recognizing the potential impact of early intervention for these youth and their parents, the SMART Office collaborated with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to fund an initiative targeting children under 12 with problematic sexual behaviors.
Growing evidence supports the effectiveness of these two prevention approaches — situational crime prevention and developmental crime prevention — to complement more traditional law enforcement and criminal justice interventions. Together with existing criminal justice and public health strategies such as prosecution, treatment, educational campaigns, training and public policy initiatives, they constitute a model for a comprehensive approach to prevention and response. Given the promising results to date, efforts such as these ultimately create safer communities for all of us.
Joan Tabachnick, a SMART fellow from 2013-21, is a nationally recognized expert on sexual abuse perpetration prevention. Her work has involved sexual violence prevention, child sexual abuse prevention and bystander intervention.