Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

How to prevent sexual violence and harassment

Sep 17, 2021 | Gender, Misogyny, Commentary, Policy, Equality, Education, Power, Domestic abuse, Feature

Written by Leesa Hooker and Jessica Ison

Content Notification: This article discusses sexual violence and harassment. It does not have any descriptions.

What needs to happen to not only stop sexual violence and harassment but to address the root causes? We wrote a report on sexual violence and harassment primary prevention and we created a Theory of Change, or a roadmap, for what can be done about the issue in Australia. Our reports were made public in time for the Women’s Safety Summit.

What is sexual violence and harassment?

The term sexual violence and harassment is an umbrella term to describe physical and non-physical forms of violence of a sexual nature, carried out against a person’s will. Anyone can experience sexual violence and harassment, yet it is overwhelmingly experienced by women and girls and the perpetrator is most often a male. The Personal Safety Survey found that one in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15, compared to one in 20 men. Fifty-three per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime compared to 25% of men. A recent reportfound that up to 97% of perpetrators of sexual violence are men.

However, while it is true that all women and girls can experience sexual violence, women and girls who face other forms of inequality can be at heightened risk. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women with disabilities have high rates of sexual violence and harassment but the research is often limited or culturally inappropriate. To date, the research has been limited for LGBTIQ+ communities, though this is changing.

What is Primary Prevention

While responding to sexual violence and harassment is important, to address the root causes we need what is called primary prevention. The peak body Our Watch, in their landmark report Change the Story describe primary prevention as “whole-of-population initiatives that address the primary (“first” or underlying) drivers of violence”. What this means is a shift from responding to sexual violence and harassment to figuring out what causes it and how to stop it before it starts.


La Trobe Theory of ChangeWhat did we do?

The Commonwealth Department of Social Services commissioned us to firstly research what sexual violence and harassment primary prevention interventions currently exist, specifically for women and girls. We also analysed data from the 6th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health.

Secondly, we undertook consultations with organisations, peak bodies and individuals across a broad range of sectors, to discuss key issues relating to sexual assault and harassment in Australia. We consulted with sexual violence services, including 111 people – from counsellors to researchers and advocates to businesses and identified priority prevention strategies.

Armed with both the research and the consultations, we built a Theory of Change (see diagram), or a roadmap, for the primary prevention of sexual violence and harassment in Australia.

What did we find?

We found very few successful primary prevention programs specifically targeting sexual violence and harassment. Most of the programs we found were for university students in the USA. The programs were generalised with little specific targeted programs for at risk groups nor for perpetrators. In particular, there were no successful programs aimed at men and boys.

Our analysis of the sixth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health found that almost one-third of participants had experienced an unwanted sexual event in their lifetime. Those more likely to report having had unwanted sex were female, trans and gender diverse and non-heterosexual young people.


We also found few programs focused on alcohol. Yet we know that alcohol is a significant factor in the perpetration of sexual violence and harassment.

What needs to happen?

Firstly, all approaches must be intersectional. That means, they need to include diverse voices and experiences. We also note that at the Women’s Safety Summit, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community representatives called for a specific national plan. We also made similar recommendations after feedback from our consultations. Also, LGBTQ+ communities asked for further inclusion, which is mirrored in our findings.

To address sexual violence and harassment, we identified 5 key areas:

Early supportive relationships: Sexual violence and harassment start early in life, with one in five Australian girls and one in 25 boys sexually abused before they turn 15 years. Preventing this violence means early childhood relationships with parents, caregivers and other family members need to be supported. Also, this means addressing structural disadvantage such as employment, education and housing. In the long term, supporting families/parents or caregivers and addressing social inequities can improve social cohesion, which is an important primary prevention aim.

Education for behaviour change: Education is a key area for primary prevention. This means more than just sporadic lessons about consent in high schools. Education needs to start early, and it should promote gender equality, healthy masculinities and safe and respectful relationships among young people. This must include age-appropriate sex education, affirmative consent, critical literacy of media and technology including pornography, and it must include diverse experiences.

Safe Environments: All community members deserve to be safe from sexual violence and harassment in any environment or setting, including at school, work, online, in public and at home. We found that targeting different settings could allow for a range of different, tailored interventions to reduce and prevent sexual violence and harassment.

Transform social norms: Social norms are the broad attitudes and cultures within society that condone all forms of violence against women, including sexual violence and harassment. We found that building strong and inclusive social movements that can facilitate men’s engagement as allies, enhance women, trans and gender diverse people’s voices and social activism will sustain change.

Policy and reform: Australia has a national policy on the reduction of violence against women and children, yet this is not specific to sexual violence and harassment. A national sexual violence and harassment policy and the revision of other supportive legislation and reform is recommended.


Sexual violence and harassment is pervasive and can cause serious harm. However, it is preventable. If we focus on primary prevention, we can not only stop it from happening, we can change the underlying attitudes that foster sexual violence and harassment. That is an exciting goal.

You can read the Evidence Review and Theory of Change on the DSS Women’s Safety website.

Please note: Feature image is a stock photo.

The La Trobe University report was made possible by funding from the Commonwealth Department of Social Services. Alongside Leesa Hooker and Jessica Ison, the research team included Nicola Henry (RMIT), Christopher Fisher, Kirsty Forsdike, Felicity Young, Hannah Korsmeyer (Monash), Grant O’Sullivan and Angela Taft.

Dr Leesa Hooker is a nurse/midwife academic and Senior Research Fellow at the Judith Lumley Centre-La Trobe University, leading the Child, Family and Community Health nursing research stream within the Centre. She has established expertise in the epidemiology of family violence, women’s mental and reproductive health and parenting.


Dr Jessica Ison is a Research Associate at the Judith Lumley Centre – La Trobe University. Jess has established expertise in family and sexual violence, Criminology, Gender Studies, and LGBTQ+ communities.

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