There’s a lot to be said about protests – the energy, camaraderie, connecting with people, and sparking new or revitalized action in people. There are also the signs – we want to see people’s creativity and spin on specific topics and issues. It’s these signs that get passed around via social media and help the energy and passion of the day live on. Addressing sexual assault at protests is becoming more common (which is awesome!) and it’s important to critically think about how to represent this issue and personal experiences on protest signs.
Reference your own assault
Personal narratives can have a strong impact on people’s perceptions and understandings of how sexual violence happens and the ramifications afterwards. Sharing your story can make statistics come alive and put a face to the cause. However, even if you’re open to talking to people about your assault, displaying details on a sign at a protest shouldn’t be taken lightly.
There’s two certainties when it comes to protests: there will be other people and they will take pictures. When people you know post pictures it is likely that mutual friends, family, acquaintances will see them and perhaps even share them. It’s important to question whether you want these mutual people to know this information about you and what your response will be should they ask you questions the next time you’re together. In addition to friends, strangers and media will be taking photos with you and your sign in either the background or foreground. It is impossible to know how many people will see these photos, whether they will know you, or if the photos will go viral.
Reference another person’s assault
Representing someone else’s lived experience is more complicated and it’s best to steer away from this. If you’re set on this idea, make sure to get their permission and have them approve what you want to write. Also discuss with them ahead of time how to answer any questions that may come up.
Consider writing signs without identifying information in order to keep the people you are writing about anonymous. For instance writing “I attend such-and-such university and x friends have been assaulted. Support college sexual assault survivors now!” contains no identifiable information compared to “My sister was assaulted and she’s the strongest person I know”.
Similar to when survivors disclose information on a sign, you need to think about who could possibly see the sign both at the protest and on social media. Is there anyone who the person(s) you are writing about would be uncomfortable with seeing this information?
Respond to a recent event or quote
The sky’s the limit when trying to choose a politician or celebrity who has done or said something utterly reprehensible in regards to rape or survivors. There’s: women’s bodies can shut a pregnancy down if raped, “legitimate rape”, “forcible rape”, some women get raped easy, and the general victim blaming comments we hear day in and day out. And, of course, there are the comments that Trump made throughout his campaign.
When addressing comments like these, it’s extremely important to make sure that the sign punches up rather than down. During the Women’s March on Washington, there were countless signs depicting Trump grabbing the breasts or crotch of Lady Liberty or another unnamed woman. Protests can have huge numbers of attendees and the larger the crowd, the more survivors. It can be incredibly unsettling or triggering to repeatedly see signs graphically representing a sexual assault. While Trump, and others, have said horrendous things in regards to sexual violence calling them out should not come at the expense of someone else’s safety and ability to participate in an event.
Show support to survivors
Oftentimes, survivors can blame themselves or experience judgement from those around them. A sign is a great way to show support and solidarity to those who have experienced sexual assault and to let them know there are people who believe them. Seeing positive messages can help to alleviate the many negative societal messages that survivors receive everyday. Simple phrases such as “I believe survivors of sexual assault” or “No one asks to be raped” or “Survivors of sexual violence: You are loved” are all great ideas. Just make sure that whatever you write is supportive and empowering.
You could also reference statistics to show how prevalent sexual violence is – though stats can be a bit tricky. We often hear 1 in 4 women or 1 in 6 men experience sexual assault in their lifetime. When we look deeper into the statistics, other trends become apparent. For instance, rates of sexual violence are much higher for Indigenous and Black women and for trans/GNC people. Mainstream narratives and discussions about the prevalence of sexual assault frequently erase the experiences of more marginalized individuals. When considering what statistics to use, be sure to deviate from the most common ones, especially if you are already coming from a place of privilege in regards to race, gender, ability, sexuality, class, etc.