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Dr. Sabrina Boyce works to expose social roots of sexual violence

UC Berkeley Public Health Professor Dr. Sabrina Boyce and principal investigator Jay Silverman of UC San Diego were awarded $1.125 million by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess sexual violence prevention programs in California. The grant is part of a larger effort in collaboration with the California Department of Public Health to address the societal norms that contribute to sexual violence.

“One of the big changes and shifts that’s needed and is starting to happen in sexual violence prevention is doing community-level prevention and policy-level change,” Dr. Boyce said in an interview. “Those are the things that are really getting at the root causes of violence and addressing the structural inequities in our societies that continue the patterns of violence in our society.”

The funding completes a five-year project that began while Dr. Boyce was at UC San Diego’s Center on Gender Equity and Health. It will allow Dr. Silverman and her team to look at 22 rural and urban communities across the state.

Social norms around how men and women should behave – especially in partnership – are one of the contributing factors to sexual violence, according to Boyce. Harmful beliefs such as misogyny, racism, and ableism perpetuate aggressive behaviors toward marginalized people.

For decades, sexual assault prevention research focused solely on addressing individual behavior rather than the social contexts that enable violence. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and the passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act that public health officials and researchers began to see sexual violence as a public health problem, said Boyce.

By addressing what facets of a community contribute to gender inequity, Dr. Boyce’s team hopes to reverse this trend and put sexual violence within a broader scope.

“There’s been historically a gap around gender-based  violence prevention in  representation of faculty and the research being done here,” Dr. Boyce said. “And so I’m really thrilled to be able to bring that to the School of Public Health.”