One night, in early 2013, I posted an image to my new Tumblr blog illustrating themes around fear of being falsely accused of rape and chances of rapists being convicted of their crimes. It was my third post, and part of a larger project I was formulating about creating a new conversation about sexual violence. When I woke up, the image had been liked and re-blogged 16,000 times.
By the end of the day, the image had set off a passionate and emotional discussion around the world. Many advocates, leaders, and organizations recognized the value and intent of the graphic — to spark new ways of connecting to and framing the issue of sexual violence. Other bloggers and writers condemned it — and me — with thoughtful yet perhaps harshly titled articles like The Enliven Project’s False Rape Infographic is Going Viral, Too Bad It’s Wrong and others like, Lies, Damn Lies, and Infographics, that I won’t even link to here.
And then there were the comments. On my site. On other posts. On Reddit. Some of them were constructive thoughts on the graphic or the topic at hand, but many of them were deeply personal, hostile, and defensive attacks. My friends told me not to read the comments. My husband tried to take away my phone. But I was truly fascinated — and not entirely surprised — by the reactions, especially the reactions of men.
In my years of speaking about sexual violence — as a survivor and as an advocate — I’ve seen my fair share of negative reactions to conversations about sexual violence. In my twenties, I thought men were just defensive, angry, and hostile — or unwilling to have a discussion about something so deeply personal to me. And then, while serving as a medical advocate at a local rape crisis center, I met a young man who changed my perspective.
One weekend, I was called to meet a survivor at a local hospital. When I showed up, the medical staff told me that they needed help dealing with her “disruptive” and “hostile” male friend — their words, not mine. He was questioning the survivor intensely, snapping at the nurses, and generally seemed in distress. Rather than shut him down, I looked for a way to connect. We went for a walk, and he disclosed his own sexual assault from years ago. He never sought help. And now, in the middle of watching his friend experience the same thing, it was all rushing back to him.
Men and women can be intensely triggered by stories of sexual violence — even, and perhaps especially, on the internet. In fact, one out of four women and one out of six men will experience sexual violence directly in their lifetimes. Not to mention the experiences of family members, friends, partners, and loved ones — all in different stages of trauma response and survivor recovery. When triggered, we respond in so many different ways. While one person might well up or appear anxious, another person might shut down or become hostile.
Being triggered doesn’t justify abusive or violent language, but it does explain hostility and denial in a more complex way than, “Those guys are all crazy jerks.” We are quick to judge those who express discomfort or disbelief around sexual violence — especially if they are men. We interpret a lack of understanding or engagement as condemnation of the cause.
In turn, we often — online or in person — shut down an important conversation with men who are actually eager to talk. As a part of my work to make conversations about sexual violence less uncomfortable, I’ve spoken to dozens of men about sexual violence. I’ve learned that they feel sad, concerned, and helpless — and are seeking ways to support the survivors in their lives. But when the topic comes up, they have no idea what to say. They realize it’s a high stakes conversation, and don’t want to get it wrong.
When men — and women — react strongly — or not all — to the topic of sexual violence, I’ve learned to respond with curiosity and compassion. Conversations about sexual violence are necessarily uncomfortable, but when we work through that discomfort together, we can start to create connections and healing — the things we need to support survivors and prevent sexual violence from taking place at all.