Last week was International Anti-Street Harassment Week, which seeks to raise awareness about and put an end to gender-based street harassment, the weaponization of language to make women feel unsafe in public. Another way language is used to normalize sexual violence is through victim-blaming language. As it pertains to sexual violence, victim-blaming language can be hard to understand, especially when our everyday conversations are so saturated with harmful language like “she shouldn’t have sex with strangers,” or “she shouldn’t have been out that late.” Even the most well-intentioned people often use language that blames victims without realizing it.
When I speak to those I love about sexual violence, their language is almost always the same: “She had sex with a stranger from Tinder. That is not smart.” It shows the prevalence of rape culture when people hear stories of sexual violence and discuss the survivor’s actions first, virtually leaving out the perpetrator’s role and accountability altogether. We have the power to change the discussion from “something happened to her” to “someone did this to her.” What we say in response to sexual violence is important, but so is the order in which we speak about it.
Discussing women’s safety is particularly important — however, our language becomes problematic when we talk about safety in a way that analyzes a survivor’s behavior and actions leading up to their assault, as if not drinking or not going back to someone’s apartment could have prevented it. Well-intentioned people may say the assault is not the victim’s fault, but how would you feel, as a survivor, if you were asked detailed questions about your behavior leading up to trauma inflicted by someone else?
Of course, one can minimize their chances of harm by exercising caution, but we must understand that assaults do not hinge on survivors’ actions. Assaults happen because the perpetrator intends to strike often by using manipulation or coercion. We must recognize the subtleties of language that either shame or empower a survivor.
One way you can practice empowerment is by using language like “I believe in your fear,” “You are valid in your fear” and “Tell me what I can do to make you feel more comfortable.” However, this does not mean that women who are fearful of assault live in constant fear, nor should they. For many women, fear does not keep them from being out late, having sex or dressing in ways that make them feel good about themselves. But too often, these actions are deemed reasons for assault.
Unfortunately, there are ways in which standing up to sexual violence actually perpetuates rape culture and traditional gender roles. Men, particularly straight men, often uphold their own sense of masculinity by vilifying those who rape. Standing up for women, which actually may not include female voices at all, strengthens a man’s dominance not only over women, but over less manly men as well. There is also damaging language among some heterosexual men that they don’t need to rape; that they are attractive enough to get any girl they want, that they have control over sexual impulses and that real men don’t rape. It is critical to note here that anyone can be an abuser or perpetrator of sexual violence.
A man may never assault a woman, but he may joke about rape or practice victim-blaming — a problematic practice that he may excuse or not even recognize because he simply believes he’s a good guy. According to Dr. Pascoe and Dr. Hollander — professors from the University of Oregon who focus on gender — these men “see sexual dominance over women as unproblematic even if violating legal codes of rape is.” Even if a man denounces rape or rapists, he may still practice dominance over women in more subtle, but still harmful, ways.
Although it may seem like it, this is not a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Simply involving more women in conversations about sexual violence can positively change the way survivors are perceived, and we can slowly move away from the sexist idea that women need to be saved by men. We should all stand beside survivors of sexual assault. It is not a radical idea to imagine a society that supports and empowers survivors rather than shames them. We just have to believe it is possible and work toward it.
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Email Signe Goddard at [email protected]