Sexual Assault Awareness and Reducing Risk

When Christine Peterson, MD, began working in student health, HIV/AIDS was the major concern of the time. In response, UVA instituted a robust education campaign about condom use to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. Today, sexual assault and consent are major concerns, and UVA has instituted a robust sexual assault awareness and risk reduction campaign.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

30 years on, some concerns have remained the same, like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and birth control, but others have moved to the forefront — like social media and new research about sexual assault. Peterson, an OB-GYN who still works at UVA’s Elson Student Health Center, says of social media that it’s “a great tool for public health information, but a tool that creates a false image for a lot of kids.” And while sexual assault can happen under many different circumstances, Peterson says, “One of the major things we talk about now that we didn’t then is the existence of the sexual predator.”

Research has shown that a small minority of men — and, less often, women — commit the majority of sexual assaults. One predator can have several victims. These sexual predators have a pattern of behavior, says Peterson. “They’ll identify someone as being naive or vulnerable in some way. Then they’ll isolate them from friends and disable them somehow, with drugs or alcohol or physical force.”

When a victim of sexual assault comes forward, either to friends, or to student health or law enforcement, they often report that their assailant was someone they knew. “It’s often, ‘I knew him from class’ or ‘He’s a friend of a friend,’” she says. Predators are usually charming, observant and manipulative. It’s for this reason that Peterson corrects me when I ask her how to prevent sexual assault. You can’t.

Sexual Assault Awareness and Consent

What can parents and schools do to increase sexual assault awareness?

“Teach your children, boys and girls, to be respectful of other people’s bodies. Don’t touch people unless it’s okay with them!” says Peterson.

In a diverse student body, she deals with the full range of attitudes about sexuality. Some are fully comfortable with their sexuality; other kids are more inhibited or come from cultural or faith backgrounds that discourage discussion about sex. Peterson doesn’t see that as a reason not to address consent and sexual assault with their children.

“If you’re from a faith or cultural background, you have a right to inform your children what your values are and how sex fits into your value system,” she says.

UVA has several student groups who work in the sexual assault awareness area. Together they compose the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition. Here are some examples from the student health publication Stall Seat Journal, available in the bathrooms of all first and second-year dorms:

  • Enthusiastic mutual consent is paramount
  • A person is free to stop anytime
  • Genuine consent is freely given — that means a person can only consent if they are not pressured, coerced, incapacitated, threatened or hurt

Visit Not on Our Grounds to learn more about reducing sexual assault.

Risk Reduction, Not Prevention

“There’s nothing you can do to prevent sexual assault,” Peterson says, using seat belts as an example. The seatbelt doesn’t prevent you from being in the accident, but it reduces your risk of being injured or killed. Similarly, awareness about sexual predators can reduce your risk of being a victim of sexual assault. A lot of these risk-reduction tactics will probably sound familiar to women:

  • Have a buddy system
  • Eat before you drink
  • Alternate drinks and water
  • Get an app, such as Circle of 6, that lets your friends know where you are

Peterson loves working with students and is glad to see that over the years there’s been increasing awareness about sexual assault. But there’s one constant that she wishes would change.

“In the 30 years that I’ve been doing this, nobody believes that they can be the victim,” she says. “People think that they have good instincts and that information doesn’t apply to them.”

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