August 24, 2020

Profiting Off of Our Fear

Caitlin Burke, OAESV Prevention Specialist

I was scrolling mindlessly through Facebook a few weeks ago (as one does during a pandemic) and suddenly a post caught my eye.


Ok, weird combination. Of course, I went straight to the comments to see what others were saying and luckily there were lots of thoughts being shared. One comment summed up my thoughts well, “Were you guys hacked?” This seemingly great deal of three medical grade masks for one little sports bra was coming from a well-known social justice company that was finally revealing its true intentions: to make a buck off of our fear of a novel virus. Thankfully, their continuous posts about medical masks for the public were being equally spammed with followers chastising them for selling these to anyone other than hospitals and for increasing their prices in the process.

While this was giving me some entertainment for a few weeks as they kept posting new deals and deleting their earliest ones bordering on illegal price gouging, these posts reminded me about another market for fear that I see in my work a lot.

I started my career in violence prevention as a Prevention Educator. I would talk with students weekly about topics like healthy relationships and consent. I would listen to their thoughts on the subject, their past experiences, and most importantly, their absolute fear of being assaulted. All these students had been told in the past was that sexual violence is happening everywhere to everyone and guess what, you’re next. It was heart-breaking. On one hand, we know that sexual violence is pervasive and does happen to a lot of people, especially people of these students’ ages. On the other, we know they’re not destined to experience it. We know it’s preventable, but the messages about sexual violence often forget that part. These students are sold an idea of our violent culture and the only way to prevent it is if they do everything in their power not to become a victim. They need to watch their drink, walk in groups, carry keys in their hands, call someone when they’re alone but also don’t because you’ll be distracted, think about how easily accessed your body is from your clothes, buy this product that will for sure stop sexual assault from happening.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told of a new product that has been designed to “prevent” sexual assault. The mythical underwear that buckles, “rape whistles” handed out like free t-shirts on college campuses, cups that change color when certain drugs are present, nail polish that you can dip into said drink and swirl around to determine if it’s been drugged, a million apps that you can use if you feel unsafe. A shiny new product that will make us money because you’re afraid. But here’s the thing. If those products worked, wouldn’t every person in a high-risk group have bought one? Wouldn’t we have been convinced enough of their abilities that they would be handed out like vaccines? Wouldn’t these products have stopped all sexual violence by now?

These products haven’t stopped sexual violence because we know that’s not how prevention works.

Ok, Caitlin, so how does prevention work?

  • First, we have to change our thinking about what a potential victim can do. Even if we had bought all of these gadgets, locked up our body into a suit of armor, and kept our pepper spray at the ready, this STILL wouldn’t stop violence from happening. Because all this approach does is push the potential violence onto someone who doesn’t have all of those so-called protections. We must frame our thinking in a way that examines the potential perpetrator’s actions.
  • Secondly, and just as crucial, understand that oppression is linked to sexual violence, and preventing sexual violence means working to end oppression in all of its forms.
  • This also means that sexual violence happens to certain groups more often due to our culture’s ingrained history with oppression. And so prevention is not a one-size-fits-all approach; we’re not working to end only sexual violence.
  • Lastly, prevention must be a multi-step approach. Taking one class about healthy relationships is not sufficient for change.

Now that you understand what must be present in high quality prevention programs, you can begin doing the work as an individual. Learn about being an active bystander so that you can build your individual skills. Talk with the men and boys in your life about violence in our culture and the role men and boys play in its prevention. Empower the young women in your life to take on leadership roles. Work within your own community to identify its strengths and work to close its gaps. Advocate with the systems that you’re connected to--whether that’s a school, the legal system, or the healthcare system--to integrate violence prevention messaging into their programs and services. Donate to your local crisis center and request that the money be used for prevention. Prevention programming is not as well-funded as intervention, but it is just as necessary.

Violence is not inevitable, and our young people don’t have to be full of fear about experiencing it. But OAESV and statewide prevention professionals cannot make these changes on our own. We need everyone to examine their roles in ending violence and know that you don’t have to be an expert to begin. If you want to be connected to prevention efforts in your community, reach out to OAESV, and we can connect you. Together, we can work to end violence and the attempts to profit off of our fear.