What’s in a Frame?

By Kristen Parks, Vice President, Programs 


Within all fields, there are assumptions, myths, and outright fallacies that programs have to overcome. The field of violence prevention is no different. I remember when I worked at a Rape Crisis Center and we would facilitate presentations to directly dispel myths. Example:

Myth: A lot of “victims” lie about being raped.

Fact: Only a small percentage (2-8%) of rapes are falsely reported, just like other crimes.

As a strategy, this intuitively makes sense. Here is a false thing people believe. Let’s tell them it’s false and provide them with the truth. This has built some awareness and understanding of the issue, but has it been as effective as we need it to be? Has it changed attitudes? Or more importantly, behaviors? Has it engaged people in actionably contributing to safer communities?

In order to be successful in this movement, we have to think about the concept of framing. In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, cognitive scientist George Lakoff introduces the concept of framing to his students by telling them, “Whatever you do, don’t think of an elephant.” I don’t know what you do when someone tells you NOT to think about an elephant, but all I do is think about an elephant! So now that we’re both thinking of elephants (because we’re terrible at following directions), we’re probably picturing it differently. Maybe it makes you happy or scared, maybe you picture the elephant in the wild or at the zoo. Two important points to think about: 1) When we try to negate the frame, we actually evoke the frame and 2) Frames have associations (positive, negative, or neutral).

Is it possible that by trying to deconstruct fallacies, we have inadvertently evoked or even reinforced frames of victim blaming, beliefs in harmful myths, and/or negative associations in participants? Consider how saying “don’t blame the victim” often makes people consider what responsibility the victim should have and the phrase “violence against women” makes some people think of man-hating.

Here are a few ways to consider framing as it intersects with prevention education:

  1. Coin new phrases. When the green dot program was first created, we coined the term “power-based personal violence”. Lakoff suggests that if you want to create new associations, you have to create new frames. Power-based personal violence was a term that people hadn’t heard before and therefore had no associations with it, positive or negative. We had the opportunity to create a new frame and new associations with what had been historically referred to as “violence against women”.
  2. Engage individuals through the lens of “you are the solution”. Framing through roles such as bystander, influencer, ally or change-maker helps pivot from well-established and divisive framing of “women as victims” and “men as perpetrators” that has immerged from content such as risk reduction and consent. Everyone is framed as a potential part of the solution, positioned both to respond to imminent warning signs of harm and to contribute to norms that establish violence is not acceptable. What if all warning signs and solutions were framed from the perspective of the bystander exclusively? This approach would allow us to get away from the frames that “all women are victims and all men are perpetrators” and significantly reduce the defensiveness and pushback associated with that framing. This increases receptivity of participants toward messages of engagement in prevention.

Framing is imperative. As we work with people, remember they do not come to us as blank slates, but as individuals with experiences and associations that we must take into consideration if we want to be effective. Stop thinking about an elephant!

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