Prevention Corner: Unpacking ‘Athletes As Leaders’: A Sexual Assault Prevention Program for Female High School Athletes

Dec 06th, 2017

By Rachel Yehoda, Program Coordinator (Prevention & Education)


In an effort to reach new audiences, sexual assault primary prevention efforts are constantly evolving and new strategies are being developed every year. Several prevention programs, including Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries, focus on reaching youth. Some programs, such as Coaching Boys Into Men, target specific groups of youth, like, male high school athletes. In this quarter’s Prevention Corner feature, we examine a new primary prevention program Athletes As Leaders (originally known as ‘Student Leaders and Athletic Youth’ or SLAY), created by the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle, WA. Athletes As Leaders engages female high school athletes in prevention efforts.

It is important to remember that sexual violence can take many forms. Some forms are more severe, such as rape and sexual assault, while others can be more subtle, such as harassment and sexist jokes. Athletes As Leaders targets the subtler forms of sexual violence often perpetrated by young girls against other girls. Through interactive components and discussion, Athletes As Leaders examines these forms of violence and the factors that lead to perpetration. Similar to Coaching Boys Into Men, Athletes As Leaders leverages the unique relationship between young athletes and their coaches to communicate key prevention messages. Athletes As Leaders’ intended audience is female high school athletes, but program developers recommend its use alongside prevention efforts that target men and boys.

Athletes As Leaders promotes prevention messages that empower young, female athletes in “creating new norms that support female empowerment, gender equity, and healthy relationships.”[1] Unfortunately, prevention messages for girls often take on a victim-blaming tone. For example, young girls and women receive messages such as ‘don’t walk by yourself at night,’ or ‘learn self-defense’ to reduce your risk of being assaulted. These “risk reduction” approaches are ineffective for prevention and place blame on the victim. Athletes As Leaders turns away from these kinds of messages and instead teaches girls to challenge the traditional gender norms and stereotypes that contribute to our culture of violence.

This 10-session program covers a variety of topics, including healthy relationships, combatting traditional gender norms, consent, self-image, and rumor spreading. Each session unpacks these topics through interactive components, such as viewing relevant YouTube videos topic and guided discussion with teammates. The first program session asks participants to come up with a group agreement, which outlines group expectations for discussion of sensitive topics, promotes mutual respect among the group, and creates a safe space. In the remaining 9 sessions, participants come up with strategies for addressing other specific topics amongst their teammates and peers. For example, the second session of the program examines the harmful nature of gender stereotypes. Participants view the Always #LikeAGirl campaign video and discuss how the phrase “like a girl” is perceived in our society and the sources of gender stereotypes. At the conclusion of the session, participants are asked to brainstorm ways that they can challenge gender stereotypes in their everyday lives.  

Athletes As Leaders adopts a comprehensive approach to prevention by incorporating multiple different types of activities on topics that address factors that perpetuate sexual violence. The program moves beyond raising awareness of the issue and has participants strategize ways to challenge or change these factors. Participants play an active role in the discussions and have sufficient exposure to the prevention messages over the course of the ten, 20-minute sessions. This is important to note because effective prevention must be done over a longer period of time in order for the messages to have a lasting effect. It also strives to foster positive relationships among participants, emphasizing both teamwork and respect.

Prevention efforts need to move beyond just raising awareness of the problem of sexual violence in our communities. Athletes As Leaders strives to deliver culture and social norms change. By empowering young girls to challenge sexual violence in our society and promote respect among their peers, that could pave the way for future primary prevention efforts.  

To learn more about the Athletes As Leaders program and its curriculum, visit the Athletes As Leaders website.

[1] "Athletes As Leaders: Background Information and Connection to Sexual Assault Prevention." Athletes As Leaders. 

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