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Harm Is A Shared Responsibility

By Tillie Powell, Student Staff Member

My Utah story is a dime a dozen. I was raised in a big, devoutly religious family in the suburbs of Salt Lake, and when I came to the University of Utah, I ended up leaving my religion of origin.

All this to say, for the majority of my life, I lived in and benefitted from conforming to Utah’s unique cultural norms. I have had the opportunity, now, to see the great State of Utah from both sides: an active believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and now as a non-religious student who is engaged in many progressive social causes. And through this dual experience, I have noticed something interesting in the ways that we talk about harm, and more specifically, sexual violence: we collectively like to try to find something or someone to blame, regardless of which side of the political or religious aisle you fall on.

“It’s the church’s fault that Utah has such high rates of sexual violence.”


“Sexual violence is so prevalent here because we don’t have comprehensive sex education.”


“Porn is to blame for rape.”


“It’s because of our culture of sexual shame and repression that sexual assault occurs.”


“Men are just socialized to harm women.”


Any other phrase that implies that harm is inevitable.


Yes, all of these things may contribute to harm, and we absolutely should focus on shifting and changing the cultural elements and institutions that influence harm. Yet, in the face of all of these BIG issues, it starts to feel like we are all just so small, and truly unable to make meaningful change; from this, we can become complicit in a culture of harm. When we just concern ourselves with these significant issues, we forget a couple of key points.

First, we’re all capable of causing harm. Sexual violence occurs when one person harms another person, or sometimes, when both people play a role in hurting each other. It is performed by real-life people, who think and feel and are impacted by these bigger issues. Sexual violence does not occur between one person and abstinence-only sex education. When we lean solely on these cultural explanations for harm, we leave out the reality that sexual violence is an act of interpersonal violence, an act that we are each capable of.

Second, there is hope!! Sexual violence itself has been a longstanding cultural institution. We view it as expected and normal. And by continuing to lean on these influences that seem so incredibly far beyond our control, we develop the assumption that harm is bound to happen. It starts to seem like we individually are incapable of doing anything to prevent harm, and that we can’t even try. From this, we miss something huge: we each play a role in ending sexual violence. We’re all collectively responsible, and we can all do something.

While you and I alone cannot end a culture that facilitates harm, we can start by:

  • Having conversations in our circles of influence on what harm looks like, how to respect boundaries, and how to avoid compliance in our harm-promoting culture.

  • Reflecting on the ways that our identities and life experiences influence the ways that we view sexual violence.

  • Considering the reality that we’re all capable of causing harm and think about what this means for our relationships and interactions with other people.

  • Recognizing that harm can look like A LOT of different behaviors, and working to address these behaviors when we see them in ourselves and others.

At the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention, we work to embrace this wider concept by trying a variety of “little” things – blog posts (like this one!), social media education, conversation-centered events, poster campaigns, discussion-based workshops, and more! Sexual violence prevention can look like this – trying a lot of different things, and that’s what we need: all of us trying. By moving beyond the big problems, we can better recognize the reality that sexual violence can be prevented. We, as individuals, are part of the solution, and together we can work toward a world where violence is no longer communally accepted.