This morning a two-hour drive from Philadelphia to Harrisburg had me listening to an unusually full set of morning news programming. As world, business, and local news updates cycled and my morning coffee settled in, two stories in particular caught my attention. The first story was about Olympic officials questioning whether McDonald’s is an appropriate sponsor for the upcoming games. A few minutes later, a second story championed hospitals for efforts to improve healthy meal options, but as a back-drop, the story highlighted a confusing connection many hospitals have to fast-food chains housed in their facilities.
Yes, both stories feature mention of an iconic fast food chain in a setting where health/wellness is meant to be emphasized, but they share something else too. The common thread in these stories is the conundrum of sending a mixed message. You know those sticky situations when what is being said isn’t being modeled or when expressed values don’t align with our actions. I think this challenge relates to our lives in many ways, and it also has a significant impact on our work to change mindsets and social norms as they relate to sexual violence.
In the Mix
So we ask ourselves, with mounting concerns about a global obesity crisis, what is the impact of touting a fast food chain during a major international athletic event? Or what is the take way of walking past the dollar menu on the way to a doctor’s appointment? Well, it’s complicated.
The nature of a mixed message is that we aren’t left with a clear direction. As a recipient of the message, we fill in the gaps with our own knowledge, experience, and values. We have an opinion, make a choice or maybe we don’t process a message at all. It’s just added to the white noise of our cultural/social consciousness. But then there’s the consideration of when we are the ones with a message to share.
Sexual violence prevention cannot happen in a vacuum. It requires involvement and “buy-in” from every level of society. So we share a message about sexual violence and its impact with a call to action for involvement in prevention. But I think it’s worth examining the times that this potential impact is threatened by mixed messages.
Do we spread awareness in a way that is victim-blaming? What is our message if we say that sexual violence is never the victim’s fault but outline steps for risk reduction that emphasize personal responsibility, choice and dress? Or are we talking about consent in a way that reinforces gender norms? In addition to challenging unhealthy norms and attitudes, are we sharing skills and behaviors that outline healthy sexuality?
The questions run deeper too. Are these messages challenging systems of oppression like racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism and sexism that connect to the root causes of sexual violence? Do our partners and collaborators strengthen these messages?
For some, it’s a positive step to be sharing any or all messages that raise awareness about sexual assault, and for others, waiting to settle on a “perfect” message leaves them with little to say at opportune times. I’d also like to think there’s an in-between, a place where messages are clear, relevant and timely. In an ideal world, SAAM and all of our messages countering sexual violence would live there, and that’s what we are working toward. In the meantime, I believe we are all learning to steer our messages in the right direction, and I think we owe it to one another to offer a heads up when we might be serving up more or less than we expect. (Translation: Let us know if you do not, in fact, want a side of fries with that.)