I’ve found no better way to destroy the ambiance of a dinner party than to introduce myself with the words, “I’m involved in raising sexual assault awareness on campus.” It’s the only three-second phrase I’ve come up with that unequivocally ends all hopes of cheerful banter. Parents, colleagues, friends, professors; on dates, on holidays, at reunions, in bed—it’s the dementor’s kiss.

“So, what’ve you been busy doing around campus?”

“Well, I’ve really gotten involved in sexual assault prevention work this past year.“

BOOM. Conversation obliterated.

Little ashy scraps of the good humor from moments ago flutter through the air crying, “Why? Why did you do that to me, Goodson?!” I can see my audience’s carefully scripted next words trickle from their brain as they struggle to find something anodyne to say.

They were going for “Wow, that’s really interesting, do say more,” but quickly realize they actually don’t want to hear more. The subject’s heavier than they anticipated. They struggle to find an exit strategy. The signs of panic leak through the weak smiles.

“Well… um… indeed…”

And so it goes. I spare us the agony of awkward silence and lob an easy, lighthearted question back to revive the conversation.

Worse, though, is when I encounter the rare person who does want to talk more about it, endlessly. The problem is not the interest, but the tone, because too often the conversation isn’t a dialogue but a diatribe disguised with the air of reason and informed opinion.

I went to cook dinner at a new friend’s house last weekend for a small get together. I didn’t expect to get into a gridlocked conversation over pasta salad. But, once I dropped that line, that oh-so-weighty line, I should have known there would be a shark in the water. After all, he was a recent sociology major.

“I mean, I don’t know anyone personally who’s been in that situation, but I know some weird people, you know?" he said. "They’d never do anything, of course, but it’s sketchy sometimes. I mean, usually they’re all just drunk, but, you know, it’s not like that. I like to think I’d be the one to stand up to that, our 'age group' is just afraid of not fitting in. It’s just so sad. But it’s interesting to look at sociologically. All the undertones of class and race. I once heard of a Durham guy who snuck into a dorm room and found this girl...”

Suddenly, I was stuck in the awkward crevice between his blind ignorance and his inflated ego as he tried to show off his comprehensive understanding of the issue. Anything I said, no matter how small or discursive, only stoked the fires in his narrowed eyes. The rest of the circle was staring at their shoes wishing one of us would start choking on an hors d’oeuvre so they could save the day from this eye-gouging sermon.

Honestly, though, it’s hard to say which is worse: avoiding the subject or pretending to know everything about it. I understand the need to move the conversation forward—maybe not the place, maybe not the time. But I do hope that we don’t avoid it forever. It’s important to have that discussion from time to time because sexual assault can be decreased with words. Changing conversations changes culture, which changes actions.

But beating a bedraggled horse with the you-contribute-to-a-culture-of-rape stick is the ultimate nail in the coffin. It turns people off and locks them in their defensive mode. Nobody wants to be accused of helping someone commit rape, and nobody wants to be coerced into revealing they were assaulted. While I want people to feel that they can talk honestly about these issues, I’m not going to troll them into it. If that conversation comes up and everyone is open to it, pass the bread and let’s go.

I’m not close to being a professional counselor and people’s stories of their experiences disturb me as much as anyone else. But I can’t help but take seriously the work in which so many brave people engage regularly. If you don’t think you know someone personally affected by sexual assault, rest assured you do. So be open to asking the questions you want answered and hopefully you’ll get responses without the gruesome details or moral pretention or judgment. There is a middle ground, and hopefully we can find it before the meal’s over. Nothing ruins dessert faster than talking about gang rape.

Anyone with further questions about sexual assault—what qualifies, how to see signs of it, how to help yourself and others—should consider consulting one of the extraordinary warriors of the Women’s Center and PACT, our campus group devoted to helping students understand and develop solutions for sexual harassment and assault in a realistic way.