What is the difference between primary prevention and risk reduction?

In the most basic sense, primary prevention attempts to prevent a sexual assault from happening in the first place, while risk reduction aims to interrupt or stop a sexual assault in progress. Most colleges or universities have educational programming aimed at addressing the issue of sexual violence and rape on campus and often these educational efforts fall into one of two categories – primary prevention or risk reduction. Here is a more in depth breakdown of the two philosophical camps and strategies:

Primary Prevention – the focus of primary prevention is on the potential perpetrator. Educational efforts attempt to intervene in the behaviors of potential perpetrators before a sexual assault takes place. We know that over 98% of violence is committed by people who identify as male. Therefore it is not uncommon for primary prevention programs to be targeted towards men. Some of these programs may include men’s groups or activities that begin to unpack violence in hegemonic masculinity. CSU offers students the opportunity to examine masculinity through our men’s group Men in the Movement. Click HERE for more information.

Here at WGAC we believe that everyone, regardless of gender can benefit from primary prevention education. Other prevention education efforts include our CTMO campaign, the intro to gender based violence course, as well as many of the books and videos housed in our resource library (LINK). Prevention against sexual assault takes a commitment from all genders.

Risk Reduction– the focus of risk reduction is on potential victims. Meaning that most risk reduction strategies are targeted towards potential victims or bystanders who learn strategies to use in-the-moment, should an attack or attempted sexual assault happen. Some examples of risk reduction programs include blue safety lights on campus, self-defense classes, bystander intervention techniques, the buddy system, rape whistles, etc.

Is one approach better than the other?

While some individual people feel safer knowing that risk reduction strategies exist, it can be problematic if a campus only uses risk reduction in its efforts to curb sexual assault and rape. Perhaps the biggest flaw of risk reduction strategies lies in the fact that most strategies are designed for victims to use during a stranger assault. We know that statistically 97% of victims are sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust. Most of these assaults happen within a context where things like mace or pepper spray would not be useful. Most perpetrators of acquaintance rape use manipulation, coercion and pressure during the assault. And let’s be real, how many of us hold a can of mace in our hands while we are making out with someone “just in case” things start to go farther than we want them to go? It’s just not realistic. Also, risk reduction strategies have the potential to increase victim guilt and self-blame. If a survivor or bystander is trained in self-defense but does not use the techniques (or uses those techniques unsuccessfully) during a sexual assault, it can leave the victim feeling like they should have done more.

But is risk reduction bad?

It is important to note that some people (primarily women and queer men) feel more empowered to navigate their daily lives after having completed self-defense training. WGAC wants to validate and honor that this may be the case for some students at CSU. While we don’t currently offer self-defense classes through the office, we are looking for ways to incorporate similar efforts in a way that feels affirming, safe and feminist. If you are interested in this topic, click HERE for more info.

Here is the Red Whistle Brigade demonstrating and explaining the difference. Be sure to check out the whole performance for more information regarding consent, safe space, sex positivity, and the B.E.S.T. support system for survivors.

Wanna learn more?

WGAC has lots of resources that provide education about prevention and risk reduction. some of these include:

Real Knockouts: The physical feminism of women’s self-defense (Book)


Book description: An examination of women’s self-defense culture and its relationship to feminism. I was once a frightened feminist. So begins Martha McCaughey’s odyssey into the dynamic world of women’s self- defense, a culture which transforms women involved with it and which has equally profound implications for feminist theory and activism.

Unprecedented numbers of American women are learning how to knock out, maim, even kill men who assault them. Sales of mace and pepper spray have skyrocketed. Some 14 million women own handguns. From behind the scenes at gun ranges, martial arts dojos, fitness centers offering Cardio Combat, and in padded attacker courses like Model Mugging, Real Knockouts demonstrates how self-defense trains women out of the femininity that makes them easy targets for men’s abuse.

And yet much feminist thought, like the broader American culture, seems deeply ambivalent about women’s embrace of violence, even in self-defense. Investigating the connection between feminist theory and women physically fighting back, McCaughey found self-defense culture to embody, literally, a new brand of feminism.

>Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (Book)

book description: In this groundbreaking new look at rape edited by writer and activist Jaclyn Freidman and Full Frontal Feminism and He’s A Stud, She’s A Slut author Jessica Valenti, the way we view rape in our culture is finally dismantled and replaced with a genuine understanding and respect for female sexual pleasure. Feminist, political, and activist writers alike will present their ideas for a paradigm shift from the “No Means No” model—an approach that while necessary for where we were in 1974, needs an overhaul today.

Yes Means Yes will bring to the table a dazzling variety of perspectives and experiences focused on the theory that educating all people to value female sexuality and pleasure leads to viewing women differently, and ending rape. Yes Means Yes aims to have radical and far-reaching effects: from teaching men to treat women as collaborators and not conquests, encouraging men and women that women can enjoy sex instead of being shamed for it, and ultimately, that our children can inherit a world where rape is rare and swiftly punished. With commentary on public sex education, pornography, mass media, Yes Means Yes is a powerful and revolutionary anthology.