Last week my 12-year-old son and his friends used a term I hadn't heard before: "rape face." The next day I saw his buddy tag a photo of himself on Instagram with #rapeface.
So we sat down to talk.
When I asked him to help me understand #rapeface, he was eager to show loads of examples of what a rape face looks like and to explain that it's a hashtag used by all his friends to describe a photo of an "awkward smile." He giggled as he flipped through the images and thought it was hysterical.
I raised the problem of co-opting a word as violent as rape to describe something "hysterical" and he didn't get it. He was emphatic that #rapeface wasn't actually about rape and rolled his eyes with a "mom, what's the big deal?"
My son has grown up with a mother who works in the women's movement and he proactively calls out sexism, initiates discussions about why it's not cool that the most popular song of the summer was about date rape (thanks, Robin Thicke) and he's won prizes for raising money to end violence against women.
So what is the big deal? He and his friends don't literally mean that they want to rape someone by using that hashtag. They are not intentionally trying to make fun of rape. They are 12-year-olds who are just being silly. Lighten up, mom.
But that is precisely why it is a big deal. A very big deal. That 12-year-olds would think it was normal, innocent and even funny to tag a photo of themselves #rapeface goes to the heart of how entrenched rape culture is in our country. Canadian Women's Foundation studies show that victim blame is alive and well in Canada.
It turns out the meme first surfaced in 2008 and was not just about "awkward smiles" but rather to label the expression on the face of a man before he is about to rape a woman. It's intended as a joke and you can find thousands of photos and videos on Instagram, Vine, YouTube and Twitter tagged #rapeface.
But here's the thing, words are powerful. Words have consequences. When a word like rape is used as a joke, it trivializes sexual assault, it normalizes the issue and it creates a climate where rape is accepted. By using a word like rape in colloquial slang, we have become desensitized to its real meaning and that invalidates the experience of the hundreds of thousands of women each year who experience sexual violence.
Intended or not, the insensitive normalization of a word like rape is a big deal. It doesn't mean every kid who tags a photo #rapeface is incapable of empathy or is destined to be a sociopath or rapist. But they are unknowingly contributing to a culture and a climate that tells survivors they aren't safe or supported. It's on the continuum of victim blaming and glorifying violence and contributing to a significant and critical issue for women and girls. To be indifferent to the word rape is to be indifferent to the prevalence of rape.
The turning point for my son, was when he thought about how someone who had been raped might feel seeing a silly photo tagged #rapeface. We continued talking and listening to each other. And that's exactly where we all need to start. We need to be having these conversations with our kids and with our own peers about reclaiming words like rape if we want to start making a big deal about putting an end to rape culture.