Messaging sexual violence prevention is such an important part of our overall strategy, but it can be tricky to create a compelling and hopeful pitch for prevention that will reach a broad audience, while also navigating deeply embedded rape myths & victim blaming.
This the second part in our series on messaging prevention. For this series, we draw from the guidance and toolkits developed in partnership by Raliance and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center with the Berkley Media Studies Group (BMSG). There’s a lot of great messaging guidance in these resources, but this Tip continues to unpack the basics of the language we use in our messaging. Part 1 of this Tip series and the BMSG full guides are at the bottom of this page.
Shifting Our Focus
While we’re working towards and talking about primary prevention, the ways in which we discuss victimization and perpetration directly contribute to our ability to build cultures of prevention. Whether we are making proactive statements or responding to questions or statements from others, the language we use conveys a lot.
One of the reasons we’re talking so much about shifting language towards accountability is rooted in what those who work in communications call “frames”. Frames affect how people understand and make sense of the world, and without even knowing it, creates meaning. In the U.S., one common frame people use to understand the world emphasizes personal choices and resolve: “rugged individualism”.
“For most Americans, “rugged individualism” is the starting point for any conversation about how to solve a problem. We call it the default frame because if no alternative is presented, it is where people’s minds tend to go first. So, if someone is asked why sexual assault happens, they will often focus first on the behaviors of the people involved in an assault. That might mean questioning where the victim went, what he or she drank, or what they wore.” (NSVRC & BMSG, p. 9)
Another effect of this default frame is that it leads us to only think about the problem and the solutions at the individual level, instead of thinking about changes to communities or institutions that also need to happen, and this is where so much of our prevention effort lives.
Focus on Conduct, Not Character (of the perpetrator)
There are deep-seated misconceptions that those who commit sexual violence must be depraved or somehow “other.” If we view those who commit sexual & intimate partner violence as “bad people” then how can we accept any accountability when we cause harm? How can we accept that these things are committed by our family members, friends, coworkers, classmates, and neighbors?
When we use labels such as rapists, offenders, abusers, or perpetrators it becomes a lot easier to distance from the reality of sexual & intimate partner violence. You’ll hear: “That’s not who I am, this isn’t about me” or “But they’re a good person, not a – fill in the blank”.
This line of thinking leads us to also get discouraged in prevention:
- Thinking there’s nothing that can be done, some people are just fundamentally bad or harmful.
- And when we put that ultimate label on someone’s character, it is harder to talk about the solutions that could stop those family members, friends, coworkers, etc from hurting someone else.
One approach is to shift to person-first wording such as: people who commit sexual violence, people who abuse others, and people who cause harm. This focuses on holding people accountable for their actions instead of on labeling them. And this builds the case for prevention by helping your audience move beyond thinking only about “bad people” whose behavior can’t be changed. Instead, our language and messages about conduct can help people understand that prevention is possible.
Focus on Accountability
We can do this by communicating about the perpetrator’s behavior. Because typically our focus and roots are centered on victims, sometimes our messaging unintentionally overemphasizes them in how we respond. While we intend to “defend” the actions of survivors, we neglect to hold perpetrators accountable.
This also helps to reinforce our prevention message that only perpetrators are responsible for their actions and that’s why primary prevention efforts are aimed at addressing the risk of perpetrating. Small shifts in language can make a big difference.
Let’s practice how to shift language from victim-focused to accountability-focused. In this scenario, you want to respond to a common question or you want to develop a proactive statement because you’ve heard this rape myth is circulating.
“If that kid was really sexually abused, wouldn’t they have told someone?”
There are a lot of reasons victims don’t come forward, and even more reasons why young people especially don’t. Young people are often not believed by adults in society, the experience of sexual abuse is confusing and isolating, and that person often has genuine care for the person who harmed them.
|To accountability-focused||People who sexually abuse manipulate young people and others around the situation to lessen disclosures and shield themselves. They use coercive language to make the young person feel like they invited the abuse and feel responsible for not “getting someone in trouble”.|
The reason this shift in focus is so important is that defending the character of perpetrators and focusing on the victims’ actions are tactics to distract from accountability. Ultimately, they tend to derail conversations that should be focused on the value of prevention.
Throughout these two Tips we’ve shared some alternative language to help keep our messages focused on prevention. It’s a big undertaking to utilize all of the BMSG’s guidance for messaging strategy and it will take time to build that into your practice. Hopefully, you can start folding in some of the practices we’ve discussed: using plain language, building connections, encouraging the prospect of prevention, and shifting attention to holding accountable those who commit violence. The BMSG guides reinforce that it’s impossible to be both comprehensive, and to be strategic at the same time” so be sure to give yourself grace as you practice these changes in your messaging.
- Moving Toward Prevention: A Guide for Reframing Sexual Violence. National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Berkeley Media Studies Group, 2018.
- Where We're Going and Where We've Been: Making the Case for Preventing Sexual Violence. RALIANCE and Berkeley Media Studies Group, 2018.