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Tips for Talking about Sexual Violence

Icons of two people with orange and purple speech bubbles over their heads
Sharing stories, fostering dialogue

Engaging family members, friends, and others

A man walks up to two feminists at a women’s march. While pointing at a sign that reads “Boys will be boys held accountable for their actions,” he says “What is this? A march against men?!” Adorned in pink pussy hats, holding creative protest signs, both of the feminists respond to the man in a way most comfortable to them.

The first, interpreting his question as confrontational, explains what the march and sign mean, but passion overtakes explanation and a lecture begins. The man’s eyes light up; he’s prepared to argue. Before the man can respond, the second feminist steps in and asks why he asked his question, sparking a conversation and creating space for mutual understanding.

The above scenario happened to me and my colleagues while at the Women’s March for America in January. On that day I was feminist number two, approaching the man in a space ready to hear his side and engage in a potentially productive conversation about the culture we live in—one that enables sexual violence. Later that week however, while texting my family in a group chat, I got into a heated argument with my uncle about sexual violence.

The differences between the two interactions forced me to reflect. Oftentimes I get into arguments with loved ones about issues I’m passionate about—feminist number one. These exchanges leave me feeling hopeless, burnt out, and misunderstood. Conversely, when I’m in the field and representing BARCC, I am much more prepared to be feminist number two. Even if the individual or group ultimately does not agree with my stance, I’ve at least learned why and know if there is potential in the future to invite them in for a deeper exchange.

So, why am I able to have a productive conversation about sexual violence with a stranger, but not with my family?

How can I be feminist number two in all my conversations about sexual violence and not just in my professional life?  

With Sexual Assault Awareness (and Action!) Month (SAAM) upon us, conversations about sexual violence are more likely to happen. As the community engagement specialist at BARCC, I talk about sexual violence a lot. In my approach I use a few simple techniques to connect with community partners that I’m starting to use when having difficult dialogues with my loved ones. Hopefully you’ll find these tips helpful!

1. Start the conversation

Talking about sexual violence can be difficult when we don’t shape the conversation. SAAM is a great excuse to proactively start a conversation with a loved one. You can post about it on social media, talk about it at a family gathering, or discuss around the dinner table. You can share various opportunities to engage by bring up events you plan to attend. For example, last week I posted a link to an article about sexual harassment on social media and added my own caption rather than just pulling a quote or sharing it without an explanation. I’ve found adding my opinion helps other people open up and allows me to amplify my own perspective.

2. Ask questions

When talking to others about an issue you’re passionate about, it’s easy to lecture and cite facts about why it is so important. When meeting with community partners, I provide them the space to share why an issue is or isn’t important to them first by asking questions. I ask about their organization, how they are thinking about sexual violence, and talk to them in a way that highlights their knowledge rather than my own. In doing so, I know what approach will make the most sense.

Asking questions can also be useful if the person seems hostile or makes statements that perpetuate a culture that allows and even makes light of sexual violence. Through asking questions you learn more about where someone is coming from and find ways to address their underlying concerns. For example, “It sounds like you don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to report to the police if they were sexually assaulted. Can you tell me more about your experiences with police?” This can open the door for me to share my experiences with police, or to share stories I’ve heard from survivors about their interactions with and fears about going to the police.

3. Exchange resources

Create opportunities for everyone to learn more when you’re engaging with the other person. Demonstrate that you were listening by reflecting back what you heard and asking for more information. Share some of the resources and experiences that have helped you formulate your views and perspectives. Remember that there is a lot you don’t know, sometimes even about people you consider close to you.  

4. Know when to disengage

Conversations with community partners always start with intention. It is rare that I have an argument with a community partner because I understand my goals. With loved ones however, my conversations are less goal oriented. Not all conversations will have positive endings, no matter how open and willing you are to have a productive dialogue. For your own self-care, it’s important to recognize when walking away is the best thing to do.

What are some of the strategies you use to talk to your friends and loved ones about sexual violence? Share by leaving a comment below!

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Posted by Ashley Slay

Ashley Slay
As BARCC's youth clinical outreach coordinator, Ashley facilitates BARCC’s Youth Leadership Corps (a teen peer leadership program) and leads professional development trainings for youth workers and youth-serving organizations to help them better serve adolescent survivors of sexual violence.She formerly served BARCC as the community engagement specialist and a youth programs intern. Prior to working at BARCC, Ashley received a master’s degree in in macro practice social work with a certificate in human services management from the Boston University School of Social Work. In addition to her focus on systemic change, she has a strong interest in clinical social work involving youth, race, and gender. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University in sociology and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies; has interned with the Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee and Advocacy Coalition; and worked in schools as a City Year corps member and in residential treatment for adolescents.

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