Preventing Sexual Violence: A Behavioral Problem Without a Behaviorally Informed Solution

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What solutions can we find in the research literature for preventing sexual violence, and what psychological theories have guided these efforts? We gather all primary prevention efforts to reduce sexual violence from 1985 to 2018 and provide a bird’s-eye view of the literature. We first review predominant theoretical approaches to sexual-violence perpetration prevention by highlighting three interventions that exemplify the zeitgeist of primary prevention efforts at various points during this time period.

We find a throughline in primary prevention interventions: They aim to change attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge (i.e., ideas) to reduce sexual-violence perpetration and victimization. Our meta-analysis of these studies tests the efficacy of this approach directly and finds that although many interventions are successful at changing ideas, behavior change does not follow. There is little to no relationship between changing attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge and reducing victimization or perpetration.

We also observe trends over time, including a shift from targeting a reduction in perpetration to targeting an increase in bystander intervention. We conclude by highlighting promising new strategies for measuring victimization and perpetration and calling for interventions that are informed by theories of behavior change and that center sexually violent behavior as the key outcome of interest.

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