Communication Currents

Communication Currents

Survivance Rhetoric in What to Do When You’re Raped: An ABC Handbook for Native Girls

May 20, 2020
Critical and Cultural Studies, Intercultural Communication

Native women are more likely to be raped during their lifetimes than women of other races and ethnicities. The illustrated handbook, What to Do When You’re Raped: An ABC Handbook for Native Girls, was produced in 2016 by Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center CEO Charon Asetoyer (Comanche) and other activists. The handbook was designed to be used in teaching, as well as lobbying and activism. In a new article published in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Valerie N. Wieskamp and Cortney Smith examine the handbook through the lens of survivance rhetoric, which addresses sexual violence in the context of settler colonialism. 

Survivance Rhetoric 

Euro-American narratives typically depict sexual violence in terms of individual experience. However, that perspective does not adequately address the systemic factors that affect sexual violence, particularly the sexual violence experienced by Native women. In addition, in the most visible narratives, trauma is depicted as a linear experience; because of gendered stereotypes, idealized victims (i.e., young, virginal, white women) are viewed as “pure” before their trauma, lose that purity through sexual trauma, and recover from that trauma. In contrast, survivance rhetoric avoids this kind of narrative, recognizing that “in the experience of trauma, the past repeatedly intrudes upon the present, making it largely unintelligible within linear representations of trauma.”

Survivance rhetoric also recognizes the relationship between rape and settler colonialism. Statistics show that non-Native men perpetrate the vast majority of assaults on Native women. Wieskamp and Smith describe how rape was used during colonization to control Native peoples; today, they note, rape recreates the violence of colonization through sexual violence. Settler colonialist narratives have also advanced the “vanishing race” myth, which characterizes Native communities as inferior and ultimately set for demise. Wieskamp and Smith argue that this narrative and stereotypes about Native women lead non-Native men to view Native women as “disposable” or “dirty.” Survivance rhetoric emphasizes the vibrancy of Native communities as a direct counter to the vanishing race myth.  

What to Do When You’re Raped

According to Wieskamp and Smith, “What to Do When You’re Raped is designed to resonate with essentially two different audiences: Native populations who experience the threat and trauma of sexual violence, and non-Native audiences in the position to respond to the problem.” The format of the book is that of a children’s ABC book, meant to reach both Native populations and activists who would be inspired by the format to advocate for change. Wieskamp and Smith identify four key tactics of survivance rhetoric in the handbook. 

First, they discuss the difference in how the handbook understands chronological time and narratives of survival. Wieskamp and Smith argue that the use of verb tenses is key to understanding how temporality is understood in survivance rhetoric. For example, What to Do When You’re Raped uses the future tense, “will be,” when discussing sexual assault, positioning it as inevitable. At the same time, the handbook also emphasizes survivors’ agency: “You are not defined by what happens to you, and you have the resources and support to make your own decisions.” Other passages, such as “Just remember, when you’re raped, it was not your fault,” use multiple tenses in the same sentence. Wieskamp and Smith posit that in this sentence, “to ‘remember’ can work in multiple directions by inviting reflections on the past or serving as a reminder for future action.” 

Second, Wieskamp and Smith explain the importance of storytelling in survivance rhetoric. What to Do When You’re Raped begins with the premise that storytelling holds an important place in Native communities as a means of remembering and teaching. Thus, the emphasis on storytelling in the handbook is not only on individual stories, but also on the communal and collaborative aspects of storytelling in Native communities. 

Third, survivance rhetoric emphasizes collective agency. Euro-American narratives about sexual violence and recovery often emphasize individual experiences and individual consequences for the perpetrator. Wieskamp and Smith demonstrate that the handbook uses survivance rhetoric to promote asking for community support in addressing sexual violence. For example, the “Y” page of the handbook, for “you,” notes, “You do not need to do all this alone, though. You have a community of strong women with you, and they can help you every step of the way.”

Finally, the rhetoric of survivance in What to Do When You’re Raped does not promote the kind of “preventative” behaviors that are often promoted in Euro-American narratives of sexual violence, such as practicing self-defense or wearing modest clothing. Such solutions imply that sexual violence is inevitable for biological reasons and cannot be prevented. In contrast, survivance rhetoric focuses on the structural factors that affect Native women, such as the jurisdictional problems on reservations that result in rape cases going unaddressed. In addition, Native women and girls may have a hard time accessing emergency contraception at Indian Health Services pharmacies. The handbook both names these structural barriers, and also offers solutions, such as explaining how to respond to a pharmacist who refuses to supply emergency contraception. 


Wieskamp and Smith conclude that survivance rhetoric speaks to the enduring strength of Native communities and disrupts the settler colonist narratives that undergird Euro-American narratives about sexual violence.  

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Valerie N. Wieskamp & Cortney Smith (2020): “What to do when you’re raped”: Indigenous women critiquing and coping through a rhetoric of survivance, Quarterly Journal of Speech, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2019.1706189

About the author (s)

Valerie Wieskamp

Appalachian State University

Assistant Professor

Valerie Wieskamp

Cortney Smith

Oberlin College

Visiting Assistant Professor

Cortney Smith