Positive Prevention to Stop Violence Without Blaming Victims

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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As advocates of stopping child abuse, rape, and other assaults, we need to be careful to avoid language that implies that victims of violence might have been able to “prevent” what happened. However, some advocates object to teaching “violence and abuse prevention” because they believe that this puts the responsibility for stopping violence on the targets of this aggression rather than on the perpetrators who cause it. They are also concerned that people who are unsuccessful in defending thems­­­elves will have the burden of feeling at fault along with having to deal with the emotional and physical trauma of an attack.

I completely agree that the people who commit acts of rape, abuse, and other assaults are the only ones who are to blame for this violence, not their targets. At the same time, I am deeply committed to teaching personal safety skills.  The reality is that failing to learn how to keep ourselves and others safe is a form of denial that can lead to greater victimization and suffering.

Part of the solution is to provide “Positive Prevention” knowledge and skills, rather than giving “Negative Prevention” advice. An example of Negative Prevention advice about disease might be to tell people that, in order to avoid germs, they should stay away from other people most of the time, and, if they do get sick, it is because they weren’t careful enough. Positive Prevention for health would be to wash your hands often to protect yourself from many diseases.

Germs are not human, and the harm they cause is not intentional. Violence is deliberate harm caused by one human being to another. The most effective prevention, of course, is by potential perpetrators choosing not to act destructively towards others and learning how to act safety and respectfully towards others, no matter how they feel inside. However, the reality is that simple, preventative actions can often protect you from many kinds of violence and that, for both potential perpetrators and potential targets, using Positive Prevention knowledge and skills can prevent a great deal of misery, trauma, and tragedy.

The thought-provoking Salon article, How to Prevent Rape Without Blaming Victims, by Tracy Clark-Flory gives examples of how worried women, in reaction to hearing about a sexual assault, often spread fear-based advice such as not to wear provocative clothing, not to go to unsafe places, and not to drink. She describes how advice like this is often impractical, can be used to blame someone who was assaulted, and can leave victims feeling as if a crime committed against them was their fault.

In the article, Clark-Flory quotes Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety and Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape: “Friedman suggests an important question in evaluating rape-prevention advice: ‘Does this advice create more fear, or more power?’”

“More fear or more power?” is an excellent assessment question in deciding what to teach about detecting and deterring different kinds of violence.  Since 1989, Kidpower has been teaching “Positive Prevention” knowledge and understanding to protect people of all ages and abilities from bullying, abuse, rape, relationship violence, and other emotional and physical assaults.

Kidpower has worked for almost 25 years to train an entire generation of children and their adults in Positive Prevention knowledge and skills. From small children to seniors, we have seen countless examples of how successful practice of personal safety strategies and self-defense techniques can prevent harm and increase confidence and safety, rather than leaving people feeling fearful or at fault.

There are important distinctions between Negative Prevention advice and Positive Prevention knowledge and skills. Negative Prevention advice is fear-based and full of “DON’Ts” for different ages and life situations such as:

  • “Don’t talk to strangers because they might kidnap you.”
  • “Don’t sit on a man’s lap because he might touch you in a bad way.”
  • “Don’t go out alone because you are helpless alone.”
  • “Don’t dress like that because some guy will think you are asking for it.”
  • “Don’t party because you might get raped.”
  • “Don’t wear a pony tail because an attacker could grab you by it.”
  • “Don’t stop if you see an abandoned child because it could be a trick.”
  • “Don’t open your door because someone might invade your home.”

Positive Prevention is empowerment-based and focuses on what to “DO” to handle different types of personal safety problems, including both how to protect yourself and how to stop yourself from acting in harmful ways towards others. Positive Prevention teaches these “DOs” to children, teens, and adults, including those with special needs, in age-appropriate ways:

  • Take charge of your safety and take responsibility for acting safely towards others.
  • Make a safety plan for everywhere you go.
  • Stay together until you are prepared to go on your own.
  • Check First with your adult before you open your door or talk to a stranger — and, if you are old enough to be home alone or out without an adult, Think First.
  • Stay aware of what is happening rather than assuming that a given person or situation is safe or unsafe.
  • Tune into and act on your intuition.
  • Resist emotional coercion.
  • Project an assertive attitude rather than acting either passively or aggressively.
  • Set boundaries both with people you know and people you don’t.
  • Notice and respect the boundaries of others.
  • Put safety ahead of embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.
  • Recognize and leave a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Stay mindful and centered instead of becoming either positively or negatively triggered or being on automatic pilot.
  • Stay in charge of what you say and do no matter how upset you are.
  • Be persistent in getting help.
  • Protect yourself forcefully from a physical attack.
  • Choose to fight only as a last resort, if you are about to be hurt, and you cannot leave or get help.
  • Choose NOT to fight over property, insults, or to get even with someone.

Positive Prevention:

  • is fun and empowering rather than fearful;
  • focuses on practical action rather than on the bad things that might happen;
  • gives people opportunities for successful practice rather than just lecturing them;
  • is specific for the individuals being taught rather than general;
  • never implies that you are at fault if someone attacks or abuses you.

Positive Prevention is effective because:

  • people are more likely to remember what they have practiced than what they have been told;
  • they are more likely to follow safety strategies that are relevant to their lives; and
  • they are more motivated to want to learn when they are having fun.

Unfortunately, no matter how careful we are, survivors of violence and abuse might start to blame themselves when they begin to learn to protect themselves. “He gave me so many warning signals.” they’ll say sadly, “and, how could I have been so stupid as to ignore them!” Or, “I knew better than to leave my door unlocked!” Or, “My parents warned me it was dangerous to go there, and I didn’t believe them. Everything that happened was my fault.”

Our job as instructors is to acknowledge our students’ upset feelings and not deny the reality than safer choices might have led to a different outcome, while protecting them from the negative “It was my fault” messages. We say, “Most of us have had times in our lives where we look back and deeply regret that we didn’t know or understand then what we do know and understand now. Regret for having had to go through a horrible experience is normal. Blaming ourselves, however, for not knowing or not understanding, is destructive. The person who harmed you is to blame, not you.”

Even sadder are the stories of parents whose children were abused who occasionally come to our parent education workshops. Once in a while, a mother will start weeping, saying, “How could I have trusted him? Why didn’t I pay better attention? I should have done a better job of protecting my child!”

Our instructor will say, “I am really sad that this happened to your child and to you. There is not one parent we know who does not look back and feel heartache about a decision or action that led to their child being harmed in some way. But blaming yourself for making mistakes is destructive to you and does not help your child. We all honor your courage in helping your child heal from what happened and in being here today to learn more about keeping kids safe.”

Taking a solution-focused, Positive Prevention approach to addressing violence and abuse can also help to build resiliency. Survivors of violence often feel devastated and ostracized, as if their world has shattered. We have heard from students who were attacked after our training that they felt during the attack as if they were making choices rather than feeling powerless, that they knew that being assaulted was not their fault, and that they got help right away because they understood that being safe was their right. The result was that, even though the attack itself was not prevented, the harm caused by the assault was greatly reduced.

Everyone deserves to know how to protect their families and themselves from harm, including from emotional and physical violence. When bad things happen that greater awareness and skills might have prevented, it is very sad, but it is NOT the victim’s fault. However, Positive Prevention strategies and actions can reduce the risk and damage of violence, and our goal is to bring this knowledge to as many people as possible.


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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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