Risk reduction for sexual assault: What you should know to protect yourself

by Dr. Thomas Appel-Schumacher
U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program manager

There is a lot to be said about how blaming a victim of sexual assault is devastating to a victim.

When a traumatic crime like sexual assault occurs, many questions are asked of the victim’s history and behaviors, which communicate loud and clear he or she did something terribly wrong to provoke the attack. Questions like: “Were you drinking?” “Were you alone?” “What were you wearing?” “What did you say to the alleged assailant earlier in the night?” “Why were you at that location?” “Why did you hang out with those people?” These questions may inadvertently reinforce the idea the victim is to blame for the assault.

However, no matter the circumstances, if you are a victim of sexual assault, you should never be blamed for a sexual assault committed against you. Sexual assault is a crime. There is no way for anyone to be completely safe from being assaulted in a lifetime because these crimes are about someone taking control away from the victim. But, there are ways each of us can lower the chances of being targeted. Following these measures is simply about self-protection.

There is a lot to be said for the importance of self-protection. The other term used to describe self-protecting behaviors to prevent a sexual assault is “risk reduction.” In other words, we should ask, “What can a person do to protect him or herself and reduce the risk of being sexually assaulted?”

Risk reduction in this context equates to self protection. Let’s look at some ways you can reduce the risk of you or someone you know becoming a victim.

1. Alcohol can be a huge factor in sexual predators achieving their goal of sexually assaulting someone. For self-protection purposes, you should be aware of your own limits and be aware of how alcohol can affect your thinking, reasoning and behavior. If a predator notices you are less inhibited, the predator may try to target you as opposed to someone else. Be careful when conversing with brand new acquaintances, and also be wary of acquaintances giving you more attention than you want. If you realize you have reached a certain level of inebriation that affects your ability to think clearly, take a break from alcohol and switch to water for a little while. This is especially important if you find yourself alone.

2. The “wingman” concept isn’t just something for flyers to use. It is widely known that perpetrators try to get their victims alone, away from the crowd. So, to protect yourself, you should try to stay with a group or not go alone for any purpose, even for a short period of time. Before you go out, have a plan for who is driving and how long you want to stay out. If you arrive at a club or a social event with a friend(s) and they want to leave early or end up abandoning you for whatever reason, you might want to consider going home. Being alone raises one’s risk of being targeted.

3. One inappropriate question victims are often asked after the attack is, “What were you wearing?” This implies their choice of outfit provoked and caused a sexually-charged attack. This thinking is wrong, and you should not feel at fault if you are targeted, no matter what you are wearing. However, it is important to be aware of your surroundings and to be watchful of people excessively giving you attention, because they may not have your best intentions in mind when they claim to be admiring you.

4. When you have conversations with people, pay attention to where the conversation is leading. Flirting is OK, talking about personal things is OK, and even showing an interest in continuing some kind of interaction in the future is OK. To reduce the risk of being misunderstood, you need to remain cognizant of the conversations, the responses from the other person, and what they say in response to you. If you don’t desire sexual activity, you should voice that by responding with something like, “I’m going home with my friends soon, but if you’d like to get together later this week, I’m free.” This clarity can help reduce risk, because the fact that you are leaving with other people may make it more difficult for them to target you.

5. Locations and the company with whom you choose to surround yourself are important facets of risk reduction. You should always have an idea of where you are going, know where you are and be aware of your surroundings. Some places have reputations for certain activities, which may not be entirely safe. In the same way, having some idea of who may be at the same party location is important. Many places have reputations, so know about those before you arrive. Oftentimes, those reputations are determined by the people who frequent those places. Again, a measure of self-protection can be accomplished by using simple awareness and making wise decisions about where to be and knowing who might be there.

6. With regards to everyday surroundings, going out at night isn’t the only time you have to be aware of what’s around you. Many people are attacked in broad daylight, so you should stay vigilant at all hours of the day. Be mindful when you are walking or exercising outside (i.e., where you are going, who is around and what types of neighborhoods you frequent). If you wear headphones, take time to look behind and around you every once in a while to notice if someone is following or watching you. If you are on a sidewalk and you see a large vehicle with no windows parked next to you on the road, you could cross the street to reduce the chances of someone quietly pulling you into their vehicle. The same precautions exist in parking lots. Lock your doors as soon as you enter your vehicle, whether it is morning, noon or night. While these simple measures might seem excessive to you, remember that a little can go a long way. Again, these measures are meant to help protect you and to make it difficult for perpetrators to victimize you.

Risk reduction behavior is something to help protect you from sexual predators. It is not an entire solution to prevent all chances of being sexually assaulted. The only one who is responsible for a sexual assault is the person who sexually assaults. People do not ask to be sexually assaulted. But remember that even though you may not have predatory thoughts in your mind as you get dressed, decide where to go, who to be with, how much to drink and who to talk to, there are predators out there who are waiting for the right opportunity to take advantage of you. That is why you have to take precautions to protect yourself.

There are people out there who don’t care about you and are just seeking to fulfill their own depraved desires. So, the more difficult you make it for them to target you, the better your chances are of not being victimized.

Keep in mind that these measures of risk reduction are not 100 percent solutions to the issue of sexual assault. If someone truly wishes to target and attack you, they are going to. So, for your own safety and protection, make it more difficult for them. The victim of a sexual assault is never to blame for that heinous act being forced on them. But in your everyday life, it is vital to remember not everyone has your best intentions in mind. So, to lower those risks, do what you need to do to protect yourself.