“So what do you do?” This seems like a straightforward, get-to-know you question that ideally leads to further conversation, and has even been recommended as a networking strategy because follow-up questions along this line give the other person the opportunity to elaborate on their strengths, skills and passion for their work. I try to avoid this question because my strengths, skills and passion are more likely to shut down the conversation in most social settings. I have been in the anti-sexual violence field for over a decade, and have yet to figure out how to work this topic smoothly into conversation at any given dinner party, much less as part of small talk while waiting at the check-out counter. I usually hem and haw at first, hoping people will accept my vague references to social work and move on. When they ask for, and I share, more details, I usually run into one of three standard responses:
“Wow, that’s such difficult work! I could never do that.” Yes, this work can be emotionally taxing, but because this work also plays to my aforementioned strengths, skills and passions, it is usually not overwhelming for me (if I keep up with my resilience strategies and support networks). I love it. “Hard work” means something entirely different to me than what I do on a daily basis. I have yet to discover the perfect response to such statements, so I usually mention something about how amazing all the people are that choose to do this work and how much I learn every day.
“……” or “Well that’s nice. Have you heard about…” This response both easier and harder to handle. It’s easier because people tend to quickly change topics when they feel uncomfortable, and I am relieved of the responsibility to dismantle rape myths, victim blaming, and systems of oppression during the conversation. It is harder because then I am left knowing that I could have done more to make people aware of the issue. Their discomfort makes me uncomfortable and sometimes I take the easy way out because social norms call for it, and this cultural conditioning is tremendously difficult to overcome.
“That happened to me.” Whether I am the first person somebody has ever told or the thousandth, by stating my profession I also declare my identity as a supporter, advocate, ally and safe person. Visibility is important, and by making public this piece of my life, I tell everyone around me that I am available to talk about this taboo subject. All of us have the responsibility to help each other, and these responses are moments when I can set an example for sharing compassion.
While the first two responses are problematic because they dance around the issue of sexual violence without actually addressing it, they stand in contrast to the third response which is asking for validation and recognition. The first two tend to avoid the topic, while the third centers the conversation around it. It seems to me that these are also the default responses at the societal level. Until we can accept the uncomfortable reality that some people do bad things to other people who then must struggle through negative outcomes, we will continue to gloss over the issue of sexual violence and move on to more palatable topics, leaving survivors to find their own path forward with minimal support (if any).
The one exception to that is when I have a dinner party with the amazing people who have chosen to do this work. We share a similar perspective, understanding, and language for discussing sexual violence and these conversations come as naturally to me as any “regular” conversation I might have in my daily life. I feel invigorated and inspired despite overwhelming obstacles, and hopeful that societal conversations will change. Maybe all my dinner party conversations will feel that way one day.
Natalie Ziemba is the Hotline Supervisor with MESA, and originally started as a MESA volunteer. She enjoys reading, baking, and nuanced discussions of social justice issues.