April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the perfect time to address how we talk about sexual assault and rape. Over the years, well-intentioned people have framed discussions about sexual assault by telling men to imagine if victims of rape were their wife, girlfriend, daughter, or mother. While this discussion may have been intended to enable men to humanize rape victims, it often leads to further oppression of women and falls short of addressing the real issue.
By framing the issue in this way, we are teaching men that they should care about female victims of sexual assault because these victims could be women who are important to them. This perpetuates the belief that women can only be valued by how they relate to men. Instead, we should be talking about sexual assault in an entirely different way — starting with the fact that men should care about female rape victims because they are human beings.
When rape is discussed in terms of who the victim is — a wife, a daughter, a sister or a mother — it ignores the true cause of rape: the perpetrator. While anyone can be a victim or perpetrator of sexual assault, the vast majority of victims are female, and perpetrators are overwhelmingly male. If we truly want to end rape, we need to start talking about the men who are committing this crime, rather than the women who are the victims of it.. We must also recognize that most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim — and stop pretending that all rapists are monsters in a dark alley. We need to understand that anyone can be the perpetrator of rape — including husbands, partners, boyfriends, dates, sons, brothers and fathers.
We can make our conversations with men more productive by reframing the way we talk about rape. As Stassa Edwards discusses in her 2013 article, Gender and Empathy: Men shouldn’t need to ‘Imagine if it were your wife/daughter/mother,’ instead of asking men to imagine if victims were wives, girlfriends, daughters, or mothers, we should ask them to imagine if perpetrators were husbands, partners (or boyfriends or dates?), sons, or fathers. The idea behind this rephrasing is to dispel misconceptions of perpetrators being a certain type of person and put the responsibility of rape where it rightfully belongs: with the rapist.
We have to start talking to men about perpetrators in an accurate way if we truly want to end sexual violence. Again, we are not saying that all men are perpetrators or that only women are victims of sexual assault. Instead, we are shifting the focus of the conversation from the victim to the perpetrator of the crime, so that we can truly address the root causes of sexual assault -- and work towards ending it.
If you would like to get involved in our work to end gender-based violence, including sexual assault, you can start by joining us at our signature event, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. Click here to register or to learn more about this great event! You can also volunteer for our organization, join our Men As Allies group, or donate to support our mission. Reframing the conversation -- and transforming our culture — will take time and effort, but together, we can make the change!