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Deterrence: Preventing Sexual Assault

A police officer issuing a ticket on a car

Over the last ten years, activists have made considerable strides in bringing attention and resources to sexual assault survivors. But, what if we could prevent someone from becoming a survivor in the first place. Deterrence is the things we do to discourage an action, such as trying to prevent would-be perpetrators from committing sexual assault.  

One commonplace example of deterrence is the enforcement of speed limit laws through speeding tickets. Individuals are less likely to speed when they know there’s a strong possibility they could receive a speeding ticket. This is a consequence-based form of deterrence. 

Deterrence may also come in the form of personal and social values. In the example of observing the speed limit, individuals may be deterred from speeding if it is in a school zone because they may personally value keeping children safe. Our society deems this important, hence the implementation of school zones. 

Perhaps the deepest form of deterrence is empathy-based. A driver in a school zone who actively considers and empathizes with schoolchildren and their parents may recognize that it is frightening for small children to cross a street where cars are driving fast. By empathizing, the driver might feel more inclined to slow down and respect the school zone speed limit. 

Like observing the speed limit, we can also teach deterrence regarding sexual assault through consequences, social and personal values, and empathy. 

Teaching deterrence through consequences is perhaps the most straightforward method. Very young children can understand that there are both natural and enforced consequences, such as getting burnt when touching a hot stove or being taken home from the park after hurting a friend. They can understand how hurting others damages friendships and that others don’t want to play with someone who is regularly unkind to others. 

As children grow, sexual assault can be discussed in a more explicit manner. Youth can learn that it is illegal to touch someone in a sexual nature without their consent, and may be introduced to specific legal repercussions for sexual assault, such as jail time or being registered on the national sex offender registery. You may discuss with them how sexual assault damages both relationships and reputations, even if the assault was unknowingly committed. This can also be a great opportunity to talk about consent and how to ensure it is given only enthusiastically.

Teaching deterrence through consequences may help, but might not be the most effective form of deterrence; after all, drivers regularly speed when they believe there’s little chance of being detected by a police officer. Fortunately, it is possible to teach children to personally value an individual's body autonomy. It is completely appropriate to explain to young children that it is wrong to touch someone without their consent, particularly the personal or private parts of their body. In these discussions, use specific body anatomy language so children know exactly what the boundaries are.

As children age, continue to emphasize the importance of respecting others and their bodies. Share that you believe sexual assault to be wrong, even in cases of coercion or in committed relationships, which older children may not associate with assault. Ask older children what they believe, and discuss these beliefs together. Religion may be part of these discussions if it is important to you, but be careful not to shame sex as an inherently wrong or evil aspect of life. Sex is an important part of relationships and the human reproductive process, and shaming sex can create more problems for children as they enter into healthy adult relationships, especially if the child has personally experienced sexual assault. 

One of the best methods to teach deterrence is by helping children have empathy for sexual assault survivors. At a very young age, you can teach your child to be more empathetic by encouraging them to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. This can be people in the child’s life or characters from media or books. 

Children can also identify their own feelings and use those feelings as a reference for others in their own life. After a child has calmed down, don’t shy away from talking to a child about how they felt during a time of emotional outburst, whether positive or negative. Help them identify and affirm the emotion they experienced, then look for instances in which others feel the same, despite maybe displaying that emotion differently. Feel uncomfortable being touched. 

Older children can continue to recognize more complex emotions, and will have more insights into how others feel and why. Continue to discuss and affirm your child’s emotions while also specifically sharing how sexual assault affects survivors. Help them find appropriate survivor stories and talk about what survivors experience. If you are a survivor, consider sharing your story with your child. Hearing about your assault and healing journey can make these experiences real while also highlighting the ability to be resilient in the midst of trauma, which will help your child through their own difficult times. 

When discussing these topics with your child, please be sensitive to the possibility that your child has already experienced sexual assault or been a perpetrator. Encourage open and honest communication through remaining nonjudgmental and affirming. 

Deterrence can be taught in a variety of ways, but any teaching is better than nothing at all. By taking the time to speak with your child or others in your life on these topics, you can contribute to creating a better future in which less people suffer the pain of sexual assault. The future is bright. Together, we will. 

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