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These words for LOVE are all Greek to me

By Ali Mailen Perrotto, Contract Liaison for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

I learned in a college philosophy class that the ancient Greeks had a number of highly nuanced words for love. Philia, eros, agape…all have different meanings and draw on different but equally important elements of the human experience. With Valentine’s Day (which actually originated with a bizarre and rather troubling festival for fertility in ancient Rome) coming up, I thought it fitting to reflect on all of these different words for love, and how they relate to sexual violence prevention.


This love is all about sexual passion. If there’s one thing that sexual violence preventionists love (pun intended) it’s great sex. We are deeply invested in exploring sexuality and sexual expression. We covet the kinds of mutually excitable encounters where consenting partners heartily enjoy the throes of physical passion. It’s not all bits and pleasures though. The Greeks understood that there was a dark side to Eros, and that’s why we also love information and skill-building strategies that help consenting partners safely explore what they want and need from their sexual passions, appetites, and partners.


You may recognize this word as the start of Philadelphia, or the city of brotherly love. For the Greeks, Philia is all about deep and devoted friendship. This form of love was about loyalty and sacrifice for the good of the one you love. In SV prevention world, I like to think that Philia is what guides us in our Bystander Intervention efforts. Friends get friends out of bad situations. Friends don’t let friends contribute to rape culture. Friends definitely don’t let friends rape. Sure, being an engaged bystander can be scary, embarrassing, or risky, but it is about dedicating yourself the best interests of your friends.


This form of playful love enjoys laughter, dancing, harmless flirting, and the kinds of love that children show. It’s often physically affectionate, and good for the soul. We know that loving touch and good humor are key elements of healthy relationships. Love is not always super serious. It’s good to laugh! We’re reminded of that when we think about prevention of child sexual abuse. Many programs and curricula encourage parents and caretakers to instill a sense of empowerment and joy when it comes to loving touch in their children. We encourage young people to have control over their bodies and experiences, and the power to withdraw when things aren’t fun anymore. The foundations for lifelong healthy sexuality start young.


Agape was a radical, selfless kind of love. It encompassed actions and behaviors for the greater good. I like to think that Agape leads to the recognition of social inequity, and the inspiration to make change for the better. We know that many social ills increase the risk of sexual violence. That’s why advocates work for safer housing, quality healthcare, restorative justice systems, and an end to systemic oppression. Even though giving voice to the social systems that marginalize often means coming to terms with one’s own privilege, we voice the realities nevertheless. Agape drives social change, and it’s a necessary element in changing a culture.


For the ancient Greeks, Pragma was the word used to describe the longstanding love of lasting relationships. While falling in love may be easy, staying in love takes work, commitment, and resolve. Sexual violence preventionists know the joys of work well done, but we also know the stunning weight of living with slow-moving social change. It is so hard to be patient at times. Keeping our eyes on a world free of sexual violence helps to sustain us for the long haul.


Our discussion of Pragma also leads us right into Philautia, or self-love. In the words of Audre Lord

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ~Audre Lorde

If we are to do this work for the long haul, we need to care for ourselves. We need to breathe, reflect, laugh, and recoup. There is no shame in caring for one-self. Taking care of yourself leads to a more sustainable you, which leads to a more sustainable movement for sexual violence prevention. The work you do is important. You are necessary, and you are worth it.

It makes sense, given all of the different ways that we love. Often, many different kinds of love exist even within the same relationship. My life partner is my lover, is my best friend, is my inspiration…you get the gist. The same is true for those of us who love sexual violence prevention work. We know all of these forms of love, and we incorporate into the strategies we use to make the world a better place. Much love to all the activists out there.


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