Watch Your Mouth: Using Language as Activism
We’ve heard phrases like “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Many of us have probably uttered this phrase in an effort to protect ourselves and show strength on a schoolyard. It was a coping mechanism at the time, a way to shield some of the pain, but something that we probably realized even as we said those words was simple: words do hurt.
Words are easy to say, throw out, and articulate for many but they are powerful. They are one of the quickest and most universal ways that we communicate. They are not just syllables, they are ideas and ideals. They denote value systems and they have connotations. Just as they can be used as a tool to hurt someone, they can also be used as a tool for activism and awareness. They can be used to heal and spread positivity. And they can also be used to empower.
Something that I’ve learned in my time as an advocate is how important words are, and what a useful tool and resource they are to the work that we do for survivors of sexual assault. We use them for peer counseling, to provide advocacy to survivors in both medical and legal settings, and to communicate something as simple as an appointment time. The way we use words though is very complex, and goes beyond communicating appointment times or our services. We are constantly mindful of our language and how this is coming off to a survivor. The purpose of this article is to show how language can be used to not only support but also as an act of activism. Here I outline a few different ways that language can be used to support survivors of sexual assault: to affirm a survivor’s reality, to check in, and to create space for all survivors.
Affirming a Survivor’s Reality
One thing that is strongly connected to language is identity. We feel or identify a certain way but words and language give meaning to our identities. They allow us to talk about our experience and define it, and even define ourselves. Allowing someone to define their own reality empowers them and creates an open and trusting environment. And if it’s one thing that I’ve learned since being an advocate, labels and being able to label yourself as you wish are important for the empowerment of a survivor. Labels and identities are like clothing, you feel best when you’re wearing something that fits and is flattering. It doesn’t feel good to wear a poorly fitting outfit, even if other people think that’s the one that fits you best. Meaning: how we choose to label ourselves and our experience is a very personal decision, and something that should be left up to us as individuals.
A good example of this is how sexual assault survivors choose to label their experience. Very commonly we may hear from a survivor about a “bad’ or “negative” experience that they have had. They may continue to call it just that. Or they may call their experience a sexual assault when by definition it may be more accurate to say that they were raped. Regardless of what they call it, use their language. That language may be part of how they are processing the experience. It may be triggering in and of itself to hear their experience classified as rape. A way to support them through language is to affirm their experience and how they define it by mirroring their language, rather than trying to correct them.
By doing this and affirming language, you’re also able to empower them. It was their experience and this is their healing journey, now they get to define it and process it as they like, including their word usage. It is also important to point out in this section that the language that people choose to use to identify their sexual and gender identity should also be affirmed and reflected in the language that we use back. This, again, is creating space for the whole survivor, even when providing support as a friend or family member.
One thing that I love to do and teach is actively practicing consent on a day to day basis, and this can frequently be done in the form of checking in. Checking in can also be termed as “asking for consent.” This can occur before or during an activity. It does not have to be sexual in nature and generally will involve anything that directly involves the person in question, particularly in matters of personal privacy and anything that involves touching. Checking in takes practice to make it second nature, but it’s useful in all interactions, particularly with a survivor.
One thing that is often taken for granted is the consent of others in public spaces, whether this is family, friends, or even in some cases, people that we’ve just met. I tend to think that touch is often seen as a good and healing thing, all the time. Hugging always feels good, right? Shaking hands is expected, right? These are things that you just do and you don’t have to ask for. However, touching can be a very violating thing. And unsolicited touch can be very triggering.
Thus, asking prior to giving a hug is a good idea.
When checking in or asking for consent, it is better to ask in an open way that gives someone an out. While it is still asking, saying “Can I have a hug?” with arms already outstretched is expecting a certain result. Another way to ask that would take into account the thoughts and feelings of them in that moment, “Would you like a hug?” minus the outstretched arms would be a way to start that conversation.
Likewise, something that we can do for survivors and people close to us is honoring their privacy. If sharing someone’s experience and including identifying details, it is good practice to ask them before if it’s ok to tell their story. That way they can decide what, if any details they feel comfortable with others knowing.
One way to practice check-ins and asking for consent is to do it habitually. Do it when you’re meeting friends or meeting someone new. Do it with your partners with an act that you would normally do without thinking, like holding hands. What’s great about doing this is you’ll be practicing seeking enthusiastic verbal consent, and really empowering others by asking them what they would like. And I bet you’ll be surprised by the reactions to. I always get chills when someone checks in with me, because I hear it so rarely.
Creating Space for All Survivors
Something that I often hear when people figure out what I do is “Thank you so much for the work that you do for women.” It’s true, work with a lot of female-identified clients. However, saying this narrows down the scope of what a survivor looks like. Whenever I hear that, I freeze a little bit and I think of male survivors and trans survivors, as well as the children we work with. There are so many survivors that aren’t identified in that statement. While the intention of those who are saying this is to let me know that my work is important, they are also narrowing the space for all survivors with their words. The lack of space is a form of a barrier.
When talking about survivors, it is important to include the voices of male and trans-identified survivors as well. They shouldn’t be an afterthought, but they tend to be. And really this lack of inclusion is following a heteronormative model that has seeped into the public conception of sexual assault as well. The public conception is a male perpetrator and a female victim. Though this is the reality for many people, it cuts out the voices of people that don’t fit in that mold. And more importantly, it limits awareness for the community as well as survivors. It makes it seems that our services aren’t inclusive.
When talking about survivors, I stand by using gender-neutral language. This creates space for all survivors and also tends to encourage questions and awareness. Though it’s a mouthful to say, “Thank you for the work you do for trans, women, men, and gender fluid survivors,” I think it is a bit more compact to say “thank you for the work that you do for all survivors.” In fact, people may ask what you mean by all survivors. Another thing to do would be to add room for male and trans-identified survivors when someone says a statement like the one above that just includes women. When doing things like this you’re saying: your experience exists and you matter; there is room for you.
There are many other ways that language can be useful as a resource and tool for support, and also to continually engage in activism in your day to day life. One thing that it does for me is help me to put some positive energy back into the world when faced so often with terrible, terrible things happening to people. I can make a difference with those that I love and care about with my words. That small bit of positivity and energy put out by one person makes a huge difference when more of us do the same thing.