The second pre-requisite for prevention is a coherent theory. Without good theory, evidence-based prevention strategies may inadvertently be directed to managing the consequences of sexual violence and abuse, which are more readily observable, rather than targeting its causes. A clear theoretical framework is needed to make sense of the available evidence and to provide a basis for inferring causal mechanisms and processes.
The dominant theoretical conceptions of sexual violence and abuse have been psychiatric models on one hand, and feminist models on the other. Neither, by itself, adequately explains the evidence or informs a comprehensive approach to prevention.
Psychiatric models are helpful for understanding some of the individual psychological factors associated with sexual deviance or sexual aggression, and have contributed to effective treatments with serious persistent sexual offenders, but give scant attention to the role of factors external to the offender, and have little to say about prevention beyond treating known offenders.
Feminist activism has been very successful in drawing the attention of the wider community, and thus of political leaders and policy-makers, to the problem of sexual violence and abuse. Indeed since the 1970s feminist models, particularly through the various Offices for Women, have been given a more or less exclusive voice in shaping policy at both state and national levels. Feminist models construe the problem primarily in terms of patriarchal social structures and associated gender socialisation processes, and struggle to accommodate empirical evidence at a range of other levels (e.g. gender differences in the biological foundations of social and sexual behaviour). Feminist models should be accommodated within a much broader, evidence-based analysis of the problem.
What is clearly needed is an integrated theory that accounts for the contributions of individual (biological and psychological) factors, ecological (family, peer, school/work, community, and sociocultural) factors, and situational factors (e.g. place characteristics; offender-victim interactions; the role of guardians). A fully integrated theory is needed to guide prevention efforts at multiple levels.
The third pre-requisite is a comprehensive prevention model. The main obstacle here is that, particularly since the 1980s, sexual violence and abuse has become conceived of as a distinct and unique problem, requiring its own separate explanations and solutions. Disconnecting sexual abuse from other forms of child maltreatment and other forms of crime and violence, for example, has meant that important developments in knowledge and expertise from outside the ‘silo’ have unfortunately been largely ignored.
Re-situating sexual violence and abuse within the wider context of public health, crime and violence prevention, and child maltreatment prevention, opens new opportunities to draw on a much broader, and in many cases more sophisticated, body of knowledge and practice experience.
The so-called public health model, for example, alerts us to the possibility that potential offenders might be prevented from perpetrating sexual violence or abuse for the first time, and that potential victims might be prevented from being victimised for the first time. We may not need to wait until adolescent and adult males become offenders, or until women and children are abused, before we can do something useful.
Alongside the public health approach, evidence-based crime prevention models may help to identify proven methods and specific targets for prevention efforts. In particular, developmental and situational crime prevention principles may be applied to good effect in the prevention of sexual violence and abuse.