Vulnerability in Sexual Violence Primary Prevention

By Cierra Olivia Thomas Williams, Prevention Specialist

At some point in the last five years the phrase “vulnerable populations,” used heavily in grant announcements and research articles, has leaked into my writing and my speech, especially in professional settings. For years I introduced myself as a Preventionist who works with vulnerable people or populations to engage in sexual violence primary prevention (SVPP). Last fall I attended a presentation that left me feeling challenged by how I understood vulnerability and the way I have used it to construct a frame for the work to end sexual violence (SV) against people with disabilities.

The fact is all humans are vulnerable and all humans are exposed to varying degrees of risk for different kinds of harm throughout their lives. Vulnerable is an adjective that means easily hurt, wounded, or attacked (from the Latin verb “to wound”). In a culture that glorifies, normalizes, and capitalizes on violence it makes sense to have such language to describe people. When vulnerability becomes shorthand for the problem of historic and continuous inequity within and across systems, bias can thrive, and the connection to the problem—systems inequity for people with cognitive disabilities—is lost. Vulnerability then becomes a tool of silence integrating to the cultural scaffolding of sexual violence as an option with few consequences for people who harm.

People with cognitive and developmental disabilities experience disproportionate rates of sexual violence, but they are not inherently more vulnerable to violence victimization or perpetration than people without disabilities. Instead of seeing an individual as “vulnerable” we should look towards the disproportions or inequalities in our society that make some people more vulnerable to sexual violence and address the willingness of people who cause harm to exploit those inequities to abuse people with disabilities.

People with cognitive or developmental disabilities have less access to opportunities and resources across the lifespan and it is these differences that are disabling to individuals and their families. It is not the person’s identity that makes them vulnerable. The scale of exclusion from protective systems of support—like having one’s basic needs met and connectedness through a variety of human experiences across the lifespan—makes a person vulnerable to increased risk of experiencing violence or causing harm. This makes critical the need for sexual violence prevention strategies that create protective environments.  

When our prevention strategies address community or neighborhood specific risk factors, like poverty, no internet access, or inaccessible and unavailable public transportation, we create opportunities for safety, stability, and nurturance among people. This connectedness-architecture is population level infrastructure that reduces toxic stress—a precursor to violence perpetration—broadly benefitting everyone in the community. It is from within this web of social connectedness experiences that humans can and do take risks in relationships and build resilience. Resilience is a survivor’s callous, it does not prevent sexual violence or vulnerability, but social connectedness does.

Our organizations can lead with policies and practices that support human connectedness among staff, such as paid family leave, and tele-commuting post-pandemic. In day-to-day operations, addressing inequity within our prevention practices could include budgeting time, space, and dollars to create accessibility in events, on websites, and in programs; organizations can also create accessible in-person and online meeting environments. Prioritizing accessibility creates an invitation for people with disabilities to be part of and learn about the work of prevention. However, accessibility is a legal baseline and not the same as inclusion.

Building connectedness across difference requires time, trust, genuine understanding, and intentional relationship building with people with disabilities. It is harder for me as a professional primary preventionist of violence to replicate structurally supported inequitable conditions in my work if I am accountable to people with disabilities. My professional inclusion practice is in the elevating of the voices of people with disabilities in the work to end sexual violence. Because the Rape Prevention and Education grant allows consultants to be paid an equitable rate, people with disabilities are paid for their feedback and contibutions to end sexual violence. I have colleagues with disabilities who are willing to help me learn when I am using able bias and ableism in my prevention strategies and leadership practices. Recognizing and acting against bias and discriminately wielding equity is critical to ending sexual violence in Indiana.

The problem of sexual violence is not with individuals, but with how individuals and systems use power-over to maintain the status quo. I am a gatekeeper of sexual violence prevention work in Indiana and I can cause harm through my professional practices. I am a Prevention Specialist who works with leaders and decision makers in our state to address the lack of access to opportunities and resources for people with disabilities who are continually segregated, isolated, and marginalized from essential systems like transportation, employment, and education, and from critical violence prevention strategies and crisis intervention services. By addressing equity in internal organizational practices and in external partnerships, preventionists can work to change the systems that marginalize and devalue people and construct vulnerability. We can’t shorthand anti-oppression work—there is nothing short or easy about it.

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