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Imagine our lives without sexual violence

Twenty years ago I knew nothing about sexual violence. After my son Jacob was kidnapped, I learned quickly that the motive behind child kidnapping is most often sexual violence or exploitation. Who would do that? Who would sexually harm a child?

The answer is complicated, but I now know that the environment matters.

Twenty years ago, the community's response to Jacob's kidnapping was as it should be. Minnesota collectively put its foot down and said "no more." We enacted legislation and improved training for police and response protocols. We have made a real difference in our ability to respond to this crime effectively.

Now it is time to stop sexual violence from happening before it starts. It is time to address the environment that feeds sexual violence, in order to inoculate our culture against it.

What causes people to harm others sexually? How are we "growing" human beings willing to exploit positions of power to cause sexual harm? How can we promote gender equity and respect in our schools, colleges and workplaces? In our faith communities, neighborhoods and homes?

It starts with the environment. We live in a culture that normalizes the very attitudes we condemn once they become headlines. And the information about healthy sexuality that our children need to thrive is largely missing.

We sell and purchase sexualized clothing for very young children. We coach our sons about how to win a game but not how to create respectful sexual relationships. We tolerate advertising that portrays young adults as sexual objects for attainment. We give points to those who rape on video games and additional points for those who go back to murder their victims.

We flood the Internet, television, music and movies with images of women who have been dehumanized, harmed or murdered for our entertainment. We are shocked when someone actually commits a crime or act of sexual violence, but we shouldn't be. We taught them how.

In Minnesota, we have begun to imagine our lives without sexual violence.

The Minnesota Department of Health, with the support of the US Centers for Disease Control and many community partners, has developed the state's first Sexual Violence Prevention Plan. And on Dec. 4, the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Violence along with the Minnesota Department of Health and several other state agencies will sponsor the Minnesota Summit to Prevent Sexual Violence.

Invited leaders from business, media, government, academia, faith, philanthropy and non-profit sectors will gather for a one-day prevention think tank. Leaders will identify actions in their sphere of influence to change the environment that grows sexual violence. This is a massive effort for social change, and we need champions from every sector, in every part of our state.

Twenty years after my son was kidnapped, I find hope in our state's commitment to an environment that will allow all our children to thrive. I'm proud that Minnesota is the first state to hold a Sexual Violence Prevention Summit. (Other states are preparing their own actions, and a National Summit will be held in Washington, D.C., in June 2010.)

Please become a Champion for Prevention in your community. For more information about Minnesota 's Sexual Violence Prevention Plan or The Minnesota Summit go to

Patty Wetterling is founder of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation for child safety education and a former congressional candidate from St. Joseph, Minn.