Earlier this month, we attended a brown bag session at the University of San Francisco, “On the Importance of Naming: Being More Aware about How We Talk about Sexual Assault.” The session was held by professors Annick Wibben and Shawn Doubiago, who head the Women and Violence Research Group at USF.
The discussion focused on the ways language can both oppress and liberate survivors of sexual violence, and thus how important it is that we speak deliberately and carefully about sexual assault.
At a high level, our language can steer conversations in certain directions and towards certain conclusions. We spoke about the problems associated with focusing exclusively on legal definitions or the push to report, which, though valuable, also exclude or potentially trivialize experiences and feelings outside those definitions or that emphasis. Similarly, conversations that focus exclusively on heterosexual, female survivors can marginalize the experiences of survivors who are male, genderqueer, or transgender.
(See Ann Jones’s chilling and, sadly, still-relevant article on how our attitudes towards sexual violence can silence survivors.)
Our language poses similar traps at a more day-to-day level as well. For example, one participant suggested that there is a difference between saying ‘someone has been victimized’ and ‘someone is a victim’. The first acknowledges the violence, but does not make it the defining experience of the person. The second creates an equivalence between “someone” and “victim,” as if the label defines that person’s entire experience.
Indeed, there was considerable discussion around the appropriateness of terms such as victim and survivor. Some participants felt that “victim” could mire a person in a position of disempowerment, while others thought that the term powerfully acknowledged the violence done to them — something “survivor” does not necessarily do. Others floated the combined term “victim/survivor” as one that would allow individuals to self-identify with the term they found most appropriate.
Participants, many of whom were also advocates, shared the language they use to acknowledge the violence without forcing a label on it:
• “It’s okay to call it this…”
• “It sounds like…”
• “What you describe sounds like…”
• “Other people have called similar experiences…”
The key takeaway was the importance of clearing time and space in our discussions for individuals to express and explore their experiences and feelings without being restricted or limited to one narrative or label. Indeed, as was pointed out, an individual may not even recognize an experience as violent or abusive until long after the attack. Giving people space to rescue their own narratives from a difficult experience empowers them, which can be a liberating experience.
to conclude the session, we talked about ways to help students create their own social scripts to bridge the emotional and physical in relationships, and the healthier narratives we can provide men and women that emphasize the healthy, appropriate, and consensual pleasures of sex.