Messaging Prevention Part 1: Language Matters



Date of Publication
August, 2020

Messaging sexual violence prevention is such an important part of our overall strategy. However, it can be tricky to create a compelling and optimistic pitch for prevention that will reach a broad audience, while also navigating deeply embedded rape myths & victim blaming. That’s why there’s a lot of research about how people hear our messages and what can support greater behavior change. It’s clear that the ways in which we communicate about sexual violence and prevention really matters, but how do we do it?

Luckily, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Raliance worked in partnership for years with media and message design experts at the Berkley Media Studies Group (BMSG) to develop tools to improve sexual violence prevention messaging. There’s a lot of great guidance in these resources, and so much to learn about developing a messaging strategy. So this two-part Tip is just a primer and will focus on basics about the language we use when crafting our messages. The full guides are at the bottom under ‘resources on other websites’.

Language Matters

When you’re deeply involved in the work to prevent sexual violence, it can be easy to forget that the language we use may be too technical or jargony, and that for many sexual violence may feel like an insurmountable problem. To help us get closer to our goal of social change, we need everyone we talk to and work with to take away an understanding that prevention is possible.

Use Plain Language

  • Use common words, even if that means you have to use more of them.
  • Rather than naming a concept, like toxic masculinity, it’s more effective to describe what it is that you mean.
  • Generally it’s recommended to craft messages with a middle-school reading level to ensure more accessibility.

In the BMSG resource guides they describe the concept of “insider language” — this consists of terminology we use heavily in our field such as toxic masculinity, rape culture, bystander intervention, and even primary prevention. This “insider language” may not easily resonate with all program participants or community members. Of course it may be strategic to use these terms sometimes in our work, especially when there is time to work through these concepts.

Let’s look at an example from the guide (Raliance and BMSG, p.36) on how to shift from “insider language” to “plain language” when messaging about Rape Culture:

Rape Culture
From “Insider Language” The only way to really prevent sexual violence is to change rape culture, which normalizes and excuses sexual violence and abuse. That includes changing our culture of violence, fostering healthy masculinity, and addressing the inequality of women in our society.
To “Plain Language” Whether we realize it or not, our culture often sends messages that encourage, excuse, or minimize sexual violence or abuse. This includes increasingly sexualized media, easy access to pornography, glorifying violence, mixed messages about consent, and expectations about how men and women or boys and girls should behave. We can’t stop sexual violence unless we address the broader cultural context in which it occurs.

We’re so often taught that we have to be concise in our messaging, and while that is sometimes helpful, we have to also consider the value of compelling message development. These plain language messages will likely be longer, but hopefully they will be more clear for those who aren’t as immersed in sexual violence work.

Create Connection

  • Create connection by telling stories, sharing examples from your community, or drawing comparisons to something else your audience already understands.
  • It’s also powerful to design messages that evoke shared values with your audience.

Let’s look at a few examples from the guide (NSVRC and BMSG, p. 27) on how language choice can help evoke shared values:

Evoking Shared Values


Empathy, respect, accountability

Caring for young people

"We are responsible for ourselves and for one another."


Moral courage

Optimism, hope

"We can and we will do the right thing even when it is hard."

Education has inherent value

Intergenerational wisdom

"We all benefit when young people can learn and reach their full potential."

Show Success

  • Deeply believing that prevention is possible is no easy task! Even those of us doing this work can get discouraged, so it’s crucial we invest in creating that vision for our stakeholders and community members too.
  • While data and evaluation are extremely important to our programs, they aren’t the only type of message that may inspire and activate a community. But do document your process, and all forms of progress, since these are part of the story you are building.
  • Draw on the stories and moments of change that make you excited and hopeful — it’s likely these anecdotes will also resonate with others.
  • Talk about your prevention work with pride! Don’t downplay the care you’ve put into relationship building and the indicators you’re noticing (even though many may be short-term goals in a long-term strategy).
  • You can even create deeper connections by being honest about challenges in prevention. Giving these examples will help to illustrate that prevention is a long-term investment and everyone can be a part.

Resources on WCSAP

This Tip is also available in Spanish.

Resources on Other Websites