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Sexual assault remains an insidious threat not only in American communities, but in academic and professional environments. For those disproportionately affected—military members, college students, women in male-dominated jobs—the effects of sexual assault are traumatic. Recent social efforts (e.g., #MeToo, #MeTooSTEM) have brought renewed attention to sexual assault in various industries, calling attention to its prevalence, the collective inadequate response to survivors, and the lack of severe sanctions against perpetrators.

The Consequences of Sexual Assault

The effects of sexual assault can be severe and far-reaching for both individuals and organizations. Survivors suffer a range of consequences affecting their mental health, professional life, and interpersonal relationships. Organizations that experience a sexual assault incident among its employees may experience disrupted functioning among team members, especially i the case that a sexual assault incident results in a division of support for a survivor and perpetrator. Organizations must also devote significant resources to legal, public relations, and human resources professional in the way of sexual assault as well as significant resources to communication, training and other prevention and response efforts. The devastating impact of sexual assault incidents makes clear the importance of continued efforts to understand and prevent this harmful behavior.

Using Large-Scale Research and Behavior Change Methods to Reduce Sexual Assault

To reduce sexual assault, it is crucial to pair a deep understanding of the problem with proven methods of behavior change. To this end, Fors Marsh Group (FMG) employs an approach wherein we begin with rigorous data collection that measures the prevalence and characteristics of sexual assault incidents as well as related factors, such as workplace climate. This provides an understanding of the extent of the issue and how it manifests across the population.

Identifying and prioritizing the prevalence and characteristics of sexual assault incidents is key to the subsequent development of behavior change initiatives. This knowledge provides foundational information on perceived potential drivers and widespread beliefs about the consequences of behavior, indicating where behavioral research and change initiatives might focus.

Behavior change initiatives, such as awareness campaigns or prevention trainings, can then be developed to leverage the most influential drivers of current and harmful attitudes and behavior. The same approach is also used to influence the adoption of positive attitudes and behaviors. Moreover, the effectiveness of these efforts can be tested and revised before implementation with a broader population. By applying this multistage methodology, FMG comprehensively explores, addresses, and understands sexual assault.

Building upon this deep understanding of the scope and dynamics of sexual assault within large populations, we use qualitative  research methods to more deeply uncover the determinants—or key drivers—of individual behaviors associated with the issue. For example:

  • What prevents victims—or bystanders—from reporting sexual assault?
  • What would make it easier for them to report sexual assault?
  • What are the good things—perceived positive consequences   —or bad things—perceived negative consequences—that happen from undertaking, or not reporting sexual assault?

Understanding these specific drivers on the part of “doers”—individuals already successfully doing the positive behavior—as well as among “non-doers”—individuals not currently undertaking the positive behavior—provides critical insights in order to develop the messaging, campaign, or program strategy. This deep-dive research also allows us to uncover nuances of the key determinants of behavior among different sub-segments of the population. Being attentive to the sensitive nature of talking about sexual assault, we use homogeneous focus groups or one-on-one conversations to learn about how attitudes and behaviors present among these sub-segments; for example, higher- versus lower-ranking Service members or male versus female.

As we develop the intervention strategy, additional iterative research helps us gather insights in order to guide the development of effective messages to influence key determinants. FMG leverages its priority “Determinant-based message development framework” to create and test compelling message frames around which campaigns are developed.

FMG’s Work Reducing Sexual Assault in the Military

FMG partners with the Office of People Analytics (OPA) to help the Department of Defense (DOD) understand sexual assault, harassment, and climate among our men and women in uniform. Our research provides key insights into whether sexual assault rates are increasing or decreasing over time and which populations may be most vulnerable. This information, in turn, guides policy and program  on the development of resources to reduce sexual assault—making sure support is available to Service members who need it the most. Our research also paints a picture of what sexual assault in the U.S. Military looks like—the who, when, how, where, and what of assaults. This comprehensive understanding of sexual assault dynamics is a key first step in the development of prevention or intervention efforts that can lead to a decrease in these harmful behaviors. One reason that sexual assault remains so pervasive is that it is widely underreported. To assist the Department in efforts to improve reporting rates, our research focuses on identifying barriers to reporting, which can then inform the development of policy designed to better support sexual assault survivors. Finally, our work focuses broadly on exploring Service members’ perceptions of gender relations and climate. Our work sheds crucial light on how male and female Service members engage with each other and illuminate the role of leadership and peer behavior and are used to inform training and leadership development initiatives.

Get A Deeper Understanding With Mixed Methods

The marriage of methods geared toward a deep understanding of a complex issue and proven strategies for behavior change are promising for a multitude of problematic behaviors beyond sexual assault. Other concerns that plague individuals (e.g., suicidal thoughts and behaviors) and organizations (e.g., racial/ethnic discrimination) may also be attenuated by this approach. If you or your organization is facing a complex problematic issue, FMG researchers and strategists have promising insights that can lead to real change.

About the author

Ronne Ostby and Laura Severance

Ronne Ostby is an experienced social marketing and health communication professional with more than 19 years in the field. She has proven expertise in applying communication and marketing principles to consumer campaigns on a range of health concerns, including illicit drug and alcohol use, tobacco use, prescription drug misuse and abuse, suicide prevention, youth violence prevention, and adult immunization. Her skill set includes primary and secondary research, situational analyses, strategy development, creative planning and oversight, campaign execution, and project leadership.


Dr. Laura Severance is the Director of Military Personnel Research at Fors Marsh Group. She has a background in gender dynamics and sexual assault, with a focus on the Military, military recruiting, cross-cultural issues, and negotiation. Laura’s team conducts research (primarily surveys and focus groups) related to quality-of-life issues within the Military, focusing on gender relations, race/ethnicity-based discrimination, general force well-being, and military spouse well-being, among other topics.

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