Oppression and power show up in many different ways within our culture. Attitudes, behaviors, and norms play a role in upholding power imbalances, contributing to sexual violence and rape culture. In the “What do you mean?” series, we explore the use and power of language and offers suggestions on how to communicate mindfully.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

We’ve probably all heard this common phrase in early life, often as an attempt to encourage us to ignore harmful words directed our way.

Critiques and disagreements are part of being social, and while people have the right to express themselves1 it does not erase the fact that our words have consequences. For victims of bullying, the risk of developing depression or other mental illnesses is proven to be much higher than for peers who do not experience bullying.

Survivors of sexual violence who are met with shame or distrust can experience “secondary victimization,” or the feeling of being re-victimized by systems or institutions who do not understand trauma and/or believe survivors’ accounts of their abuse. Harmful words can lead to harmful outcomes. While the “sticks and stones” phrase may be well-intentioned, it doesn’t reflect the true power that words and language can have.

Inequality, discrimination, biases, and other forms of oppression all are underlying roots of sexual violence. These patterns may show up in the language we use, often unintentionally. Recognizing that internalized misogyny is real—and everywhere­­—can help use choose words more carefully so that we don’t accidentally perpetuate harmful norms.

“Respect yourself!”

This phrase is often directed at a woman (sometimes by another woman) regarding their appearance and attire, their perceived behavior, their choice to stay in a relationship, or any combination of the above. This is a form of slut-shaming. Phrases like this contribute to the idea that women deserve society’s harshest treatment if they don’t conform to some notion of ‘respectability.’ Additionally, it puts the onus on women to control the behavior of others, which also contradicts what we know about sexual violence— it’s about one person choosing to exert power over another, in a way that a victim could never control.  The way a person chooses to dress or express themselves has no link to self-respect.

Try instead:

“People deserve respect” or reframe the conversation to focus on the person doing the harm.

Chivalry isn’t dead!”

The concept of chivalry, specifically in Western culture, is based in the idea that men and boys should do things explicitly for women because they are women (e.g. open doors, pay for meals, help them lift heavy items, etc.). There is nothing wrong with assisting someone in lifting a heavy box or treating someone to dinner! The problem is that chivalry is based on gender roles, which uphold historic power imbalances.

Try instead:

Be respectful of all and open doors for anyone, regardless of their gender.

“Win them over.”

This plot line is a recurring theme throughout much of our media, and the concept behind this language and idea is a problem. For example: If Pat is romantically interested in Kris, but Kris does not feel the same way, yet wishes to maintain a friendship, Kris’s decision and feelings should be respected. In popular culture and media, we often see Pat continue expressing romantic feelings and behaviors toward Kris, without Kris’s consent, oftentimes upon a friend’s advice. Not only does this disrespect Kris’s choice, it also suggests that their opinion or preference is not valid. If Pat does succeed in pressuring Kris to become romantically involved, that is coercion, which doesn’t start the relationship on a healthy foundation. Let’s aim to honor the choices people make about who they do and do not want to be involved with romantically.

Try instead:

Name this plotline for what it is – coercive and abusive.  Label this character flaw for what it’s promoting, instead of falling into the trap of “Pat is so nice” or “Kris should be flattered!”

We can work together to create social change by ensuring our space in the world is as free of harmful norms as possible. We can be mindful of the language we use to ensure we’re not supporting sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, or any form of oppression. It may seem like a small contribution, but it’s part of a much bigger picture and an accessible way for everyone to get involved in preventing oppression and sexual violence.

[1] In the United States, free speech and expression is a protected right under the first amendment of our Constitution. The free exchange of ideas is a bedrock of democracy – NJCASA recognizes its importance and does not seek to suppress these freedoms. Our intent is to elevate examples of ways individual can speak out against injustices and support our country’s journey toward equity.