Unintended consequences: why a ‘no harm done’ approach to sexual violence prevention in universities might make things worse

Prevention of sexual violence has been identified as a shared priority among universities and colleges in Australia and internationally. Ruth Liston examines Consent Matters, an online prevention module, and questions the merits of this approach and the underlying intent.

Prevention of sexual violence has been identified as a shared priority among universities and colleges in Australia and internationally. Ruth Liston explores the merits of Consent Matter, an online prevention module, and questions the merits of this approach and the underlying intent.

In recent months, 24 Australian universities and 8 colleges have purchased (and in some cases made mandatory) Consent Matters, an unevaluated one-hour online sexual violence prevention module for students.

For many experts and student groups, widespread uptake of this program has set alarm bells ringing. Despite a recommendation from the Australian Human Rights Commission that universities’ prevention efforts “be based on best practice and research”, there is no  evidence  that one-off online modules to reduce the incidence of sexual violence. In fact, best-practice involves doing almost everything that Consent Matters does not do!  The evidence supports includes locally-tailored, multi-session, classroom-based direct-participation sessions for students, supported by a whole-of-organisation approach that aims to transform culture, policy and practices across the university.

Often policy makers wanting to check a box, or to be seen to be acting quickly to address a problem, can rationalise that any effort is a positive and that they ‘can’t do any harm.’ However, this is an attitude that ignores examples of seemingly-innocuous social interventions causing more harm than good. For example, a systematic review of the U.S. Scared Straight program, where young people are brought to prisons to “toughen them up”, demonstrated that those who were part of the program were actually more likely to commit crime than a control group! The infamous Cambridge-Somerville study for at-risk youths, which featured innocuous activities like counsellors, sleepover camps and after-school study help, produced a cohort of adults who were more likely be alcoholic and die younger than the control.

Of course, these are extreme examples, and its not possible to predict with any certainty the individual outcomes for students who take Consent Matters. However, we do know that students elsewhere have rejected mandatory consent training as offensive and patronising. There is a danger too that this resentment could evolve into a more concerted effort such as the emergence of organised men’s rights activist groups on campuses. These are scenarios which already exist in the U.S. and Canada and would risk making some already problematic Australian campuses even worse. Backlash of this kind would be counterproductive to the need to include young men as allies in ending sexual violence.

In sexual violence prevention, doing good policy must trump the need to be seen to be just doing something. A ‘no harm done’ attitude fails to understand the potential for unintended consequences and short-changes students past, present and future. It also makes a mockery of the research done by many experts that work within those very institutions. Unfortunately, meaningful and effective primary prevention of sexual violence cannot be done in an hour, or on the cheap.

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About the Author:

Ruth Liston @ruthaliston is a lecturer in Criminology and Justice Studies, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies and Program Manager Master of Justice and Criminology at RMIT. She is a Member of the Consortium of Sexual Violence Researchers (CASVR) and the Gendered Violence and Abuse Research Alliance (GEVARA). 

Power to Persuade