Moving America Forward

3 Ways to Show Empathy When Talking About Sexual Assault

October 18, 2017
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3 Ways to Show Empathy When Talking About Sexual Assault
Illustration by Lauren Mitchell, @curious_lauren

As demonstrated by the current #metoo movement on social media, the words you use when speaking about sexual assault can have an impact on what behavior others view as unacceptable.

In an effort to stay woke, here are three ways to reframe how you talk about sexual assault.

“I BELIEVE YOU”

When Liz Peralta, 24, was 6 years old, she says a man raped her. Beyond the actual assault itself, Peralta tells NationSwell that the biggest challenge was getting over how her mother seemed to blame her for what happened.

“Up until I was 17 I felt like it was my fault. And I remember my mom  — she didn’t intentionally mean it — but her reaction was, ‘How could you do this?’” Peralta says. “I felt like I did this terrible thing, but I was 6. To be scared and to feel alone, those words definitely resonated with me.”

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network also suggests using other supportive, sensitive phrases, like “You didn’t do anything to deserve this,” “It took a lot of courage to share this with me,” or “You are not alone.”

Giving an empathetic response can be challenging to some. That’s because your reply can have less to do with believing whether or not an assault happened and more to do with how you were raised. A 2016 study found that those who place a higher value on obedience and loyalty are more likely to believe survivors of assault. But those who hold general welfare in higher regard place blame on the assailants.

“HE ASSAULTED HER”

“Animal Farm” and “1984” author George Orwell famously declared, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Grammatically speaking, it’s more effective to use an active voice than a passive one. (In other words, say someone did something to someone rather than someone experienced a something by a someone.)

But how does that play into discussions about sexual assault?

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women,” says Jackson Katz, activist and founder of MVP Strategies (which provides gender violence prevention education and leadership training) whose quote from a TED Talk last year is currently making the rounds online. “You can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off men and boys and onto girls and women.”

In 2001, University of Kent sociology professor Gerd Bohner published research on the use of passive voice when describing sexual assaults in the British Journal of Psychology. His findings? Those who read passive voice headlines are less likely to hold assailants culpable.

“WHEN A WOMAN SAYS NO, I WILL STOP #HOWIWILLCHANGE”

Men can share how they will act appropriately and be allies to assault survivors by using the hashtag #HowIWillChange.

Adding male voices to the discussion about sexual assault is particularly powerful, considering that up to 30 percent of men don’t believe that rape exists, according to a study published by the University of North Dakota’s Counseling Psychology and Community Services department.

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