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Let’s Talk about How We Talk…

Thursday, June 01, 2017

by Mo Lewis, Prevention Specialist, National Sexual Violence Resource Center


I talk a lot about sexual assault. You probably do, too. One of the things I love about the movement to end sexual violence is that we work to pull back the curtains of silence and misinformation that contribute to a culture where sexual violence is common, expected, and not taken seriously. I’m also proud to be knowledgeable about a topic that is still largely considered “something we don’t talk about.” But there’s one thing that I keep running into, and I wonder if you do, too – people making problematic comments about rape and sexual assault.

Sadly, I don’t think any of us are surprised if we hear someone in a movie make a joke about rape, but what happens when you are facilitating a sexual violence prevention group or discussion and:

  • a colleague expresses doubt about a victim who was raped when drunk at a party?
  • a young person in your group says that girls falsely accuse guys of rape “for the money and fame”?
  • a teacher says, “it was only locker room talk – boys will be boys!”
  • a board member says they don’t want to meet at the new community center because it's in the neighborhood’s “ghetto” and filled with thugs?

We live in a rape culture and it influences all of us.

Rape culture is “a set of conditions and practices that blames and shames victims, minimizes and excuses behaviors, gives power and privilege to perpetrators, allows money and commerce to obstruct justice, stigmatizes survivors to the point of silence, accuses them of causing their own harm and goes as far as convincing victims that they deserved it.” - Patti  Giggans, Peace Over Violence

We live in a culture that allows sexual violence to flourish. Some of the conditions that allow rape culture to continue include:

  • Social inequity
  • Violence made to seem normal (TV, video games, etc.)
  • Myths about sexual violence
  • Blaming victims
  • Silence about these issues

In my years of doing sexual assault prevention work, I’ve heard people say some shocking things about rape and sexual violence – and while it used to bother me, I quickly realized that we are all influenced by rape culture. I talk about it as if it is a tidal wave – it can feel huge and overwhelming to push back against ingrained cultural messages that tell us that people who have been raped somehow deserved it, that some people are more deserving of respect than others, and other messages that reinforce oppression of all types.

The other thing about rape culture is that it shapes our language about sexual assault – so while leading discussions about sexual violence prevention, I’ve heard people use words that were shocking or crass, or comments that sounded victim blaming, or sexist, or racist. Or ableist. Or transphobic. We know that sexual violence is inextricably linked with all forms of oppression. Problematic comments may not even be explicitly about rape – comments that reflect attitudes about homophobia, ableism, racism, or any other form of oppression still perpetuate rape culture.

So, while it might be easy to think that I was working with a group of rape-supportive young people, I almost always found that when we dug a little deeper, we would get to the heart of it – that they believed, like I do, that everyone deserves to be respected and that no-one is to blame for someone else hurting them. They just didn’t always have the “right” words to use. And, of course, sometimes they really did think various myths were true, or that it was okay to use a slur, and it became important to create space in our work to talk about these things. I needed to figure out some good ways to create a space where people could use the words that they have, but also not let problematic comments slide.

What can this look like?

Use the Words You Have – This can provide the space for participants to speak honestly and share opinions even if they don’t have the “proper” words or are using slang. This is paired well with:

Learn New Terms – Even if you want to allow participants to use the words they have, it is also vital for the facilitator and/or other group members to help adjust/correct terminology. This can help create a group dynamic of shared learning and growing.

Assume the Best – Assuming good intent (while also expecting respectful dialogue) can help group members feel safe in expressing a view (or using a word) that might be problematic, and can create the space for the facilitator or other group members to ask clarifying questions, which can often help get to the root of the statement.

Use ‘I’ Statements – Focusing on using “I” statements – speaking from personal experience and not making generalizations about groups of people – can be helpful in curbing potentially problematic statements.

“Honor Diversity” Acknowledge the diverse experiences and identities of the people in the room, both visible and invisible – and the richness that they bring to our shared understanding.

Agreements like these acknowledge that we might not always know the “right” words to use, but that we can learn and grow together as a group. Additionally, group agreements can provide a way for the group to hold themselves and each other accountable.

Putting it to work - what you can say

  1. State what is problematic and why. Focus on the word or phrase, and not the person. It could be tempting to ignore offensive or troublesome comments, but ignoring behaviors and comments can suggest implicit approval that undermines our goal of challenging a culture of oppression.

That kind of statement uses an assumption that is racist/makes an unfair and untrue assumption based on race.”

  1. Refer back to the group agreements.

“We all agreed that we would not make comments that generalize about groups of people.”

  1. Share a fact or group value. This is also an opportunity to correct any slang or incorrect terminology and educate the group on ways to talk appropriately about an idea.

“The idea that Black men mostly rape white women is false, and comes from a long history of racism and slavery in this country that even now impacts how survivors are treated.”

  1. Say what can happen next. It can be helpful to think about ways to respond to problematic comments in advance. For example, saying “I am going to bring in a movie (or we’re going to do an activity) next week where we can learn more about this” would offer an opportunity for the group to understand the intersectionality of oppressions.

However, you should also think about possible consequences if the participant refuses to change their language or becomes increasingly disruptive. These can be written into group agreements or ground rules.

Continuing to learn

It is vital for each of us to understand the ways in which we have power and privilege, as well as a basic understanding of the areas of privilege and oppression that potential colleagues or group members may experience. We should not expect those from marginalized groups to educate us (or the larger group) about oppression, or point out problematic comments – this is an area where the facilitator should take the lead. As obvious as this may sound, if someone in your group makes a transphobic comment, you should not look to the one trans person in your group to respond to that comment. This means continuous learning, and practice.

I may not always know the perfect thing to say when I hear a problematic comment, but it is important for me to model the change I want to see. In my work, I have seen richer conversations and greater changes happen when we are willing to dig deep into the ways that language can reflect harmful societal norms, and I hope you do too.