Picture This: How We Frame Issues Matters for Social Change
Picture This: How We Frame Issues Matters for Social Change
This multi-part series presented in partnership with The Communications Network, the FrameWorks Institute, and leading organizations explores how framing profoundly influences our understanding of social challenges, and how we think and talk about potential solutions.

Over the last half century, movements to end sexual violence have challenged cultural norms about violence against women, raised awareness, and catalyzed significant legal and policy changes. The landmark Violence Against Women Act alone, enacted in 1994 and renewed three times since, stiffened criminal penalties against perpetrators, provided services and supports for survivors, and created coordinated systems to prevent and respond to violence against women.

In the current cultural moment, many scholars and advocates are optimistic that movements like these will achieve even greater social change. Our optimism stems from what we perceive as a critical shift in the national conversation about sexual violence, from #MeToo to Time’s Up. 

In 2006, Tarana Burke, an activist and survivor, founded the #MeToo movement to create “empowerment through empathy” among those who have experienced abuse, particularly women and girls of color. The movement—and its iconic hashtag—went viral in 2017, inspiring millions of women and men around the world to share their stories of abuse and leading to the public downfall of many powerful men. 

In response came Time’s Up, an initiative that connects those who experience sexual misconduct with legal and public relations assistance. Inspired by activist female farmworkers, Time’s Up founders describe it as a “first step” toward ending the systemic inequities that underlie sexual violence. “Unfortunately,” they write, “too many centers of power—from legislatures to board rooms to executive suites and management to academia—lack parity and women do not have equal decision-making authority. This systemic gender-inequality and imbalance of power fosters an environment that is ripe for abuse and harassment against women.”

The shift in the national conversation to systemic inequity is a critical turning point. At the Golden Globes and Academy Awards, and in other highly visible settings, advocates are framing sexual violence not merely as a problem of pathological individuals but of pathological systems. “I want people to know that this movement isn’t stopping,” actress Mira Sorvino said on the red carpet last month. “We’re going forward until we have an equitable and safe world for women. … We want to take our activism and our power into action, and change things for every woman, everywhere, working in any workplace.”

The #MeToo hashtag has brought public awareness to the prevalence of sexual violence in ways that data alone has not accomplished. For years, advocates have rolled stark statistics off their tongues (one in five US women will be raped in her lifetime, another American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, and so on)—with the expectation that these numbers would galvanize action. The #MeToo hashtag’s popularity has helped people grasp what they couldn’t from single data points: the sheer number of women and men who have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes. 

Yet media coverage of #MeToo—and its focus on individuals, and celebrities in particular—doesn’t necessarily help people understand the problem’s systemic nature. Research conducted in 2010 by the FrameWorks Institute, with support from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, finds that people struggle to make this connection. When researchers asked people to explain why sexual violence occurs, they talked about individuals’ internal motivations. They described sexual violence as the result of a perpetrator’s moral or psychological failing, and a “victim’s” inability to ensure her or his safety. Social context—and critically, inequity—didn’t enter the discussion. Through this lens, solutions to sexual violence are limited to harsh punishment for perpetrators and self-defense classes for women, when in fact our focus should be on dismantling social hierarchies and institutions that perpetrate and promote violence.

With this in mind, movement leaders—including Burke—are advancing a larger, systemic frame that centers on inequity; without this frame, the conversation around #MeToo runs the risk of positioning sexual violence as a common and unfortunate phenomenon that takes place between a helpless victim and a monstrous predator. Producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of abuse by dozens of women, is surely a predator, but as journalist Amanda Hess recently argued in the New York Times, “His complicity machine stretched its tentacles into agencies, law firms, fashion deals, and of course award shows. …The details suggest systemic rot.” When systems are not clearly in view, it’s hard to think about how our culture’s systematic exclusion of women from decision-making power contributes to high levels of harassment and violence.

To get to the root of the rot, Time’s Up is focusing on sexual violence in the workplace. This gives advocates space to widen the national conversation beyond individuals and explain how systems shape violence. Burke endorses this view. Harassment, she said in a recent interview, is a “symptom of a larger, systemic inequality and systemic pattern of exclusion for women, for people of color, and a lack of equilibrium in the power distribution in our business. If you want to solve sexual harassment, you actually needed to solve all of those things.”

In this frame, sexual violence lives not only in the hearts and minds of people who commit violence, but also in the places where we work and live. It originates, is facilitated by, and is allowed to fester in workplace cultures that systematically rob women of agency, autonomy, and decision-making authority. Institutions, not individuals, are the target of this movement’s social change strategy. 

The solution is not limited to punishing monsters but rather to helping bring legal claims against those who commit violence and holding the institutions that support them accountable. Housed at the National Women’s Law Center, Time’s Up’s defense fund gives survivors “access to prompt and comprehensive legal and communications help” that “will empower individuals and help fuel long-term systemic change.”

Research on social movements suggests that framing facilitates social change when it sparks discussion of other, related issues. In this case, Time’s Up aims to curb sexual violence by addressing gender inequity, which underlies violence in the workplace, and opens space for conversations about other workplace challenges that women face, such as unequal pay, pregnancy discrimination, “motherhood penalties” (widespread perceptions of mothers as less competent, less committed to their jobs, and less likeable), and “second shift” responsibilities, in which working mothers assume more responsibility at home for childcare and household work. 

The systems-oriented frame offers space to advocate for policies that increase women’s autonomy and decision-making in the workplace, such as equal pay initiatives, increased leave policies, flexible working conditions, and gender quotas for boards of directors, for example. By addressing systemic inequality in the workplace, these kinds of policy solutions will help create environments where sexual violence is less likely to occur.

Systems-oriented framing also opens up new opportunities to challenge highly individualized frames of women in the workplace put forth in best-selling books such as Lean In and The Confidence Code. These frames put responsibility for change on individual women rather than on society. They tell women to work harder and be more confident to achieve gender parity rather than urging society to enact policies and training to reduce sexual violence and harassment and support women in the workplace. Time’s Up challenges harmful individual frames, because it explains how gender inequity shapes workplace cultures and reminds people that for women, “leaning in” at work can be—and has been—dangerous.

Women tell stories of abuse and harassment to each other. For many of us, hearing these stories in public venues has been both painful and therapeutic. From a communications lens, this most recent, popular focus on the issue of sexual violence is different. We’re having regular public conversations about sexual violence in which systems of inequality are central. And we are putting forth strategies to fix these systems. 

With deeper public understanding of how institutions shape sexual violence, the movement can begin to address and restructure other unjust institutions—the family, our schools, our places of worship—that create conditions for sexual violence to occur. Everyone has a role to play in creating a culture free of sexual violence. Prevention is possible, but there is no “one size fits all” solution. All institutions have a role, one that encourages disclosures, supports survivors, and creates a climate of accountability.
From a framing perspective, this new phase of the social movement to end sexual violence holds great promise—not only for women, but for all of us.