Social Norms: Commonly Held Attitudes and Beliefs That Shape Behaviors
» » » Social Norms: Commonly Held Attitudes and Beliefs That Shape Behaviors

Social Norms: Commonly Held Attitudes and Beliefs That Shape Behaviors

Societal and community environments are key in shaping behavior on a fundamental, structural level. Therefore, population-based environmental change strategies are critical to our preventing  sexual abuse and exploitation. People generally conform to certain behavioral conventions and disapprove of deviance from the norms. Norms are not simply habits. Often based in culture and tradition, they are attitudes, beliefs, and standards that we take for granted. In other words, norms pattern our behavior—they are environmental signals telling people what is okay and not okay to do. Norms describe what actually occurs (i.e., descriptive) and also signify a standard of proper behavior (i.e., normative or prescriptive). A prevention strategy must account for norms because these standards are pervasive, powerful determinants of behavior. If violence is typical, expected, and reinforced by the media, family, community, peers, or school, it is far more likely to occur. It will occur, in fact, with greater frequency and potency. If norms discourage safe behavior and are unsupportive of healthy and safe relationships, then programs focused on change at the individual level will not produce safe behavior unless social norms are changed as well. Thus, changing norms is critical to preventing sexual abuse and exploitation.

There are at least five damaging norms that contribute to sexual abuse:

  1. Traditional male roles, where society promotes domination, exploitation, objectification, control, oppression, and dangerous, risk-taking behavior in men and boys, often victimizing women and girls.
  2. Limited female roles, where from a young age females are often encouraged, through subtle and overt messages, to act and be treated as objects, used and controlled by others. This includes the sexualization of childhood, where young people are sexualized through media and marketing starting at an early age, thus blurring the age of consent, encouraging girls to see themselves as sexual objects, and allowing boys to see themselves as the users and takers.
  3. Power, where value is placed on claiming and maintaining control over others. Traditional power expectations promote the notion that children should be seen and not heard, making them an especially vulnerable population.
  4. Violence, where aggression is tolerated and accepted as normal behavior and can be used as a way to solve problems and get what one wants.
  5. Privacy, where norms associated with individual and family privacy are considered so sacrosanct that secrecy and silence is fostered, sexual violence is stigmatized, and those who witness violence are discouraged from intervening. Though changing, this value placed on privacy enables people in a shame-based and dominance oriented culture to perpetuate the abuse, rendering victims and their families immobile in the face of public shame and stigma.


Adopted from: Prevention Institute: Lyles, Cohen, Brown. “Transforming Communities to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation: A Primary Prevention Approach” May, 2009.

Leave a Reply