Principles of Effective Primary Prevention Programs

: This document guides prevention educators as they incorporate primary prevention programming into their work.


The Virginia Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Action Alliance has published Guidelines for the Primary Prevention of Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center published a report, Key Findings from A Systematic Review of Primary Prevention Strategies for Sexual Violence Perpetration, summarizing a systematic review of effectiveness of primary prevention strategies by Sarah DeGue et al. (2014). The original article by DeGue et al., A systematic review of primary prevention strategies for sexual violence perpetration, is available in full to the public.

In the article What works in prevention: Principles of Effective Prevention Programs, the authors used a review-of-reviews approach across four areas (substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, school failure, and juvenile delinquency and violence) to identify characteristics consistently associated with effective prevention programs.

  1. Comprehensive: Prevention strategies should include multiple types of activities, affect multiple settings, and go beyond awareness-raising. Note: prevention is a component of a comprehensive response to violence against women . Effective prevention efforts are those that are comprehensive. There are several models of comprehensive prevention efforts, such as the Socio-ecological Modeland the Spectrum of Prevention.
  2. Varied Teaching Methods: Prevention strategies should include interactive, skills-based components.
  3. Sufficient Dosage: Participants in your prevention programing need to be exposed to enough of the activities for them to have an effect. You prevention programming needs to happen over a long enough period of time so that the programming impacts participants' knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and skill acquisition.
  4. Theory Driven: Strategies should have a scientific justification or logical rationale.
  5. Positive Relationships: Programs should foster strong and positive relationships between children/youth and adults. According to Erin Casey, "Factors likely to contribute to engagement and interaction include personal relevance of information or presenters, and opportunities to critically evaluate and discuss the content of the presentation (e.g. Heppner, Neville, Smith, Kivlighan, & Gershuny, 1999)".
  6. Appropriately Timed: Program activities should happen at a time (developmentally) that can have maximal impact in a participant’s life.
  7. Socioculturally Relevant: Programs should be tailored to fit within cultural beliefs and practices of specific groups as well as local community norms. According to Erin Casey, "The use of information and statistics relevant to the local community in which educational programming is implemented is more associated with positive attitude change among participants than more generalized sexual assault content (Schewe, 2002)."
  8. Well-trained Staff: Programs need to be implemented by staff members who are sensitive, competent, and have received sufficient training, support, and supervision.
  9. Outcome Evaluation: A systematic outcome evaluation is necessary to determine whether a program or strategy worked.
Citation: Nation, M., Crusto, C., Wandersman, A., Kumpfer, K. L., Seybolt, D., Morrissey-Kane, E., & Davino, K. (2003). What works in prevention: Principles of Effective Prevention Programs. American Psychologist, 58, 449-456

Universal, Selected, or Indicated Strategies

Public health theory also advises that sexual violence prevention efforts be specific to an intentional audience. One way to frame this concern is to adapt Gordon's (1983) operation classifications of disease prevention for the prevention of sexual violence. In this scheme, a "universal strategy" of prevention is one that targets an entire population without regard to their exposure to sexual violence, a "selective strategy" targets those who have a heightened risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of sexual violence, and an "indicated strategy" targets those who are victims or perpetrators (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004).