Talking to My Son About Rape Culture

talking with sons about #rapeface, talking with teens about rape culture, I found out my 12-year-old son and his friends had been using 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.

Sandra Hawken Diaz has spent the last 15 years as an outspoken advocate for women. She is the Director, Partnerships & Engagement at Interval House – Canada’s first shelter for abused women and children. Follow her on twitter at @hisandradiaz .

To schedule an interview with Sandra, she can be reached at

Image via

  • Maluhia

    Aaah, iiiidk, I’m still just very disturbed that he and young people like him think it’s okay in the first place.

Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Hillary Clinton, Shake It Off, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton Campaign song
Six Reasons “Shake It Off” Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song
Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan
A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign
I Married for Health Insurance
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Trump Reality Check, Now with Actual Facts!
Fascism Facts
I Married for Health Insurance
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Women’s Elections Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Token Drop in an Abysmal Bucket & the Plight of Women Under Sharia Law
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
Paris attacks, Paris terrorism
Is Paris Burning?
Chinese government and women's reproductive rights, adopting Chinese girls, international adoption
Dear Xi Jinping, I Am Writing to You as an American Mom of a 19-Year-Old Chinese Daughter
The Vital Voice of Hillary Clinton: Part 1
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
The Eyes Have It!
Ashley Madison, Jared Fogle, sex, rape, sexual affairs
Ashley Madison vs. Jared Fogle: Rape, Sex and Hacking in America
women's viagra, Viagra, Flibanserin, sexual arousal, women's desire, sex after menopause
That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread