#MeToo Movement Elevates Efforts to End Sexual Violence

graphic of birds flying out of cage

By Alison Laurio

After students at the University of California San Diego stood up and demanded a rape-prevention program, the school brought in an expert who, with only two student interns, established in 1988 the U.C. system's only stand-alone program, the Sexual Assault Resource Center.

Fast forward to 2014. Students again stood up, and university system President Janet Napolitano rose to the occasion. She listened, launched a study and took action. Now sexual assault programs are on every campus in the 10-school system.

The U.C. San Diego office is now named Campus Advocacy, Resources and Education at the Sexual Assault Resource Center (CARE at SARC) and it is still run by the woman who founded it—Nancy Wahlig. It provides education and support services for students, staff and faculty as well as free services for survivors of sexual violence and their friends and families.

Social workers nationwide are increasing efforts to end sexual violence and the issues surrounding it as women across the country are marching and speaking out to say no more violence against women. And the country is embracing the movement called #MeToo.

Numbers Speak

About 6.9 million women and 5.7 million men experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner every year, said Rachel Graber, MSW, director of public policy for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"That's approximately 12.6 million people annually," she said. "About 35.6 percent of women and 28.5 percent of men experience intimate-partner violence in their lives."

That's more than a quarter of the people you see walking down the street, Graber said, and it does not account for the large number of people who never report the violence to authorities or anyone else.

"Part of that is there is a stigma," she said. "They don't want to be judged for staying in a relationship or they don't always want to take actions against the person."

Social Media Helps

In the late 1980s, there was a lot of conversation around girls shouldn't be drinking so much, said Wahlig, MSW, LCSW, founding director of CARE at SARC.

"That was one of many subtle ways victims were being blamed for the crime that was committed," she said. "There was a lot of blaming, so women would blame themselves."

Wahlig collaborated with psychologist Alan D. Berkowitz, who had developed a social norms theory around alcohol-prevention efforts, because alcohol held a known role in campus assaults.

"The idea is, people want to fit in with what everybody else is doing," she said.

A survey was conducted on campus asking how many drinks students were consuming at a setting, and got the answer five to 10. They put out the information students were consuming two drinks at a setting. Later they found students were then considering two drinks in a setting the norm.

"It was such a novel way of doing prevention it caught people's attention. It was flipping the whole conversation," Wahlig said.

Rape crisis was the initial model for the program.

"I knew we needed to provide crisis intervention and advocacy and intervention," Wahlig said. "Once that got started, we added policy and procedures and education. If you're changing a culture, it's all of that."

Since 2015, services have been provided to the entire campus community, including faculty and staff, she said. 

Social media has been a positive factor in raising awareness of the issues and in starting conversations about them. 

Now there is more police education, people are opening up more in some situations, and overall there is more understanding and more compassion, Wahlig said.

"To have a sexual assault is a trauma in itself," she said. "It's a challenge getting a community to understand how difficult that is. Social media has made this a conversation more people are having."

Cultural Norms

Macie Perry Smith, BSW, LSW, president of NASW-South Carolina, is an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina College of Social Work in Columbia. She also is CEO and social work educator at Diversified Training Consultants Group in Columbia; is a contributor to OnPoint, a local TV program, and is a regular contributor on radio programs, where she addresses issues that vulnerable populations face. She has her own program segment once a month on Carolina Panorama called Ask Dr. Macie.

When Smith was 18, she had just started her BSW program and was working. She said growing up in the South, it was common for men to compliment women.

"It was about appreciation," she said. "My dad said it, and other men said it, so I thought it was normal." Working the third shift with her at an office billing site was a pastor.

"His comments began being a little more salacious," Smith said. "I didn't say anything and his comments became quite salacious. I didn't want to say anything, but then he groped me."

"The guy was a pastor, a person with power. It was unexpected. He was behind me and he grabbed my bottom with his hands. I lashed out at him and said 'No!' I felt ashamed and helpless. There was nobody to report it to, so I had to take command by saying no."

A few years later, she felt ashamed again after finding out the man had done it to someone else and that woman filed a lawsuit against him.

Persistent Problem

Intimate-partner violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment are not new, and they occur everywhere.

"It's extremely pervasive," said Tricia Bent-Goodley, MSW, PhD, LICSW, professor of social work at the Howard University School of Social Work in Washington, D.C., where she is director of the university's Interpersonal Violence Prevention Program.

"This is something social workers need to have a greater awareness of, particularly now when we have #MeToo and people are speaking out," she said. "That level of pervasiveness tells us we often times have worked with people experiencing it but they just didn't tell us."

"It really does require that we as professionals increase our level of awareness so we can identify these issues-see them and hear them-and know who we can connect clients to so they get the help they need."

The IVPP provides prevention and educational programs regarding sexual harassment, sexual violence, sexual misconduct, and other forms of interpersonal violence; offers guidance for reporting incidents; and facilitates support to victims.

Smith said social workers are likely to confront the issue in their client populations. Clients have to be comfortable talking about it, she said. 

Looking at generational statistics, Smith sees a correlation between the age range of people speaking out and the generation with which they identify. Older women are not reporting or are less likely to.

"Finances are another factor," she said. "If a report could lead to losing your job, losing your security, you're not going to report."

The Time's Up movement provides support to seek legal action against perpetrators, Smith said.

Rebecca Cline, MSW, ACSW, LISW-S, prevention programs director at the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, who received the NASW-Ohio Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014, said we breathe and swim in patriarchal structures.

"We were born into it, we're assigned genders when we're born. And men were saying it's the responsibility of oppressed people to fix the problems they did not create," she said.

When men say the problem will stop, the problem will stop, Cline said. That's not to indict all men, but until we transform our society so there's equity in all areas, violence and oppression will continue. 

Graber said it is so incredibly prevalent and deeply rooted in culture that everyone should have an understanding of it.

One of the main core values in social work ethics is the need to create societal change to empower the disempowered, to support individual autonomy and to really drive societal transformation so everyone has value and worth and is safe, she said.

"There are a lot of isms," Graber said. "A lot are rooted in patriarchy. And a lot of people who've had power in the past don't want to give it up. Domestic violence is about power and control. It's a pattern of behavior, it's not someone snapping."

Her organization is one of 29 that works with the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. Each has its areas of expertise, but they intersect on domestic violence and firearms. It's a lot more common than people realize, Graber said. 

In a survey, 16 percent of respondents said they had been threatened with a gun. Of those, 67 percent said they believed their partner was capable of killing them, she said. It's a really serious issue that's often overlooked. 

Me Too

"I'm a survivor myself, and I know of other survivors who are social workers," said Kimber J. Nicoletti-Martinez, MSW, LCSW, the director of Multicultural Efforts to end Sexual Assault, or MESA, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. 

"You might be dealing with your own recurring problem when you see statistics and realize you may be working with a lot of patients who are dealing with it," she said. "You have to look for that and for signs of trauma in families."

Nicoletti-Martinez spoke as a guest lecturer at the University of Southern Indiana, where she had earned her undergraduate degree.

She told students she was a single mother with three daughters and didn't realize how living from the effects of being a survivor had an impact on her children. Nicolette-Martinez was about 10 or 11 when the abuse started, and it occurred over the course of four or five years. 

"A social worker can really be that life raft," she said. "The impact of trauma can be different for every person. It can be no hope."

Social workers should be trauma-informed. They have a special opportunity to provide support to survivors, to help with healing, and to help them move on to recovery and still find peace and healing, she said. 

As a student, Nicoletti-Martinez's adviser was a clinical social worker who she said was vital in helping her succeed and move forward. "That social worker was that life raft for me," she said.

Social Work Helps

Nicoletti-Martinez received NASW's 2018 National Social Worker of the Year Award for founding MESA, and for her work preventing sexual violence among marginalized populations like farm workers and people who are Latinx or LGBTQ. She also developed sexual violence-prevention programs targeted for farm worker communities, the first campus-based violence prevention program for the LGBTQ community, and bilingual and bicultural mental health services in community health clinics.

She started MESA in 2008 after a professor who headed a larger sexual violence-prevention program she had been working with retired. In her own practice, she was working with the immigrant and Native American communities, she said.

"I had developed such important relationships with those communities," Nicoletti-Martinez said. "I felt like those communities were so vulnerable and there was no one else to step up and do it."

So she stepped up: "I went on Google and looked up how to get a grant funded."

MESA also has projects in Arizona and California, she said. We do capacity building for other social workers so they can provide culturally relevant and culturally supportive services. A lot of people who interact with us have never disclosed before that they are survivors.

The populations MESA serves include farm workers, LGBTQ, Latinx immigrants or immigrant communities, Native Americans, Muslim communities and people with disabilities. 

In some of those, people do not go outside the community to seek help, they go to a community leader, she said.

"Help-seeking may not be formalized, so what we do is use nonformal modes of help-seeking," Nicoletti-Martinez said.

MESA also works to end violence against female farm workers, who often face threats of job loss or even death.


"One out of every five adult women, or nearly 980,000 adult women in Ohio, have been the victim of a physical assault by an intimate partner at some time in their life," it says on the Ohio Domestic Violence Network website.

"You have to think of more than the 'physical assault' line," Cline said. "You have to think of sexual violence and the physical control that often exists."

Working with victims involves more than handing someone a card with a hotline number on it, she said.

"It's really about connecting them with a domestic violence program or a rape crisis center. The social worker can make arrangements when the client is right there in the room with them," Cline said. "They can say 'I'm going to call Cappy at the domestic violence program because I know they do good work.' That's better than handing someone a card, and it's best practices."

Also, the chances of them seeking help are much greater with a warm referral, she said.

Her organization sees "great" demand for education.

"We have a lot of requests for professional development," Cline said. "A lot of agencies ask for staff training, and there are lots of requests from organizations for information on professional development."

She believes social worker schools provide some basic information on domestic violence. But often not having a good solid foundation about domestic violence can lead to questions or victim blaming, she said. They can wonder why felony domestic violence is different from other felony offenses.

"If I go out and rob a jewelry store, I'm going to go to jail," Cline said. "But I can assault my intimate partner with a gun and I won't be held to the same standards."

"In an ideal world, all bachelor-level generalists would have a basic understanding about sexual violence and sexual assault and not just part of a chapter in a book. Everyone needs to know about it so they can help clients get services they need."

Since statistics say one of three women will be victimized by intimate-partner violence sometime in their lives, social workers who work with vulnerable populations should be prepared to screen all clients-women, men and children in a manner that can remain disclosed, she said.

Cline said social work with these victims can require many varied services, including help navigating the justice system, assistance obtaining protection or restraining orders, help getting into a shelter, assistance figuring out what their needs are and figuring out what the safety plan is. It also involves providing trauma-informed care.

From clinical services to working with shelters to domestic violence programs, we can do it all, which is great, she said.

Cline said the Violence Against Women Act has not been reauthorized and there's a question if it will be with the climate in our country.

"If it doesn't, it means a reduction in victim services," she said. "If we don't provide services, we'll never see the numbers (of victims) begin to drop."

Cline's organization is not allowed to lobby, but it can engage in public education campaigns. She is currently working on how to create communities where domestic violence won't occur and how to change norms that tell people it's OK to be violent with a partner.

And there were "a whole lot" of social workers in Washington, D.C., marching for justice and gender equality, Cline said. "That's what we do."

Roles in Movements

"I think the role we play comes from our advocacy perspective," Smith said. "When we're going to influence legislation, we talk about effects and what to do about it, we do not say 'this has to be changed.'"

"I think social workers are the voice of victims, the voice of communities, so victims and survivors don't have to come forward. We speak for them."

The issue of violence against women is long-standing and persistent. but it is a problem that can be stopped, the Centers for Disease Control states. 

"Sexual violence is not inevitable," it states. "It is a public health problem that can be prevented."

Cline offered a different view.

"All different types of violence are all linked to different types of oppression," she said. "We're not going to solve anything unless we work together in all different communities against all the different types of problems. I think it demands a collective answer."



CDC DELTA impact


Howard University's Interpersonal Violence Prevention program

MESA, Multicultural Efforts To End Sexual Assault

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Conference of State Legislators:

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Ohio Domestic Violence Network


Stalking Resource Center

One of the main core values in social work ethics is the need to create societal change to empower the disempowered, to support individual autonomy and to drive societal transformation so everyone has value and worth and is safe. Rachel Graber, MSW

NASW Press logo with book cover

The Ultimate Betrayal: A Renewed Look at Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence, also called domestic violence, is a complex problem that has devastating effects on every socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic group. This publication explores the cultural, historical, psychological, social, familial, and legal issues surrounding intimate partner violence.

Purchase at NASW Press