The power of the words we choose

A lot of my work involves talking or writing about violence against women. This may be privately, with a woman who is a survivor of violence, or with colleagues with whom I share at least some of an analysis about the issue and the work we are engaged with. I speak about violence against women when I deliver trainings or speak at conferences. Sometimes I talk or write about violence against women in the media: radio, TV, print or social media. Or, I write about it in manuals and other resources that will be used by people who work in the field as well as by survivors.

Whatever the context, I am extremely conscious of the impact the words I choose to use have on the understanding of what I am talking about.

The language I use has evolved over the years, a process that is not yet complete. Sometimes the words and phrases I use change because my own understanding changes; sometimes it is because of something someone says to me; sometimes it is because we all learn something new and need to incorporate that into our language.

What are we talking about?

As just one example, think about the terms domestic violence and sexual assault. In Canada, the response to violence against women has been kept in two silos. In one is domestic violence; the abuse that can happen to women in their intimate relationships. In the other is sexual assault; acts of sexual violence that can happen to women anywhere.

Mainstream language follows this systemic and artificial separation.

Historically, police, courts and others who respond to the violence that happens in families have used the language of domestic violence, but it falls far short of painting an accurate picture of what is being talked about.

Domestic violence does not give any indication that violence within families is highly gendered. It is a passive phrase, when what it is intended to describe is anything but. It can even sound mutual: “It was a domestic violence situation.”

The word “violence” limits our thinking because it tends to make people think only of physical abuse which, while serious, is only one of many kinds of abuse that can happen in an intimate relationship.

“Sexual assault” only describes part of the story

The phrase sexual assault is equally inaccurate in describing what is really being talked about: it refers to the particular kinds of sexual violence that are defined as crimes in the Criminal Code; thus excluding other forms of sexual violence, in particular sexual harassment, to which women are subjected.

There are other problematic words and phrases that some people use to talk about sexual violence. Talking about a man “groping” a woman or girl does not make what has happened sound like the violative act that it is. Talking about intercourse rather than non-consensual penetration sounds mutual rather than violent. Even “touching” is a gentle word and should not be used when talking about sexual violence.

Perhaps most importantly, the use of these two phrases – domestic violence and sexual assault — does not create an image of violence against women as a single entity; does not paint the realistic picture that many women are subjected to many kinds of abuse and violence by the same man.

In short, it does not identify the problem correctly, and, as the outspoken Eileen Morrow, long-time coordinator of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses and tireless women’s advocate used to say, “If we don’t name the problem correctly, we will never find the right solution.”

Every word counts

There is a long list of words and phrases to think about when talking about violence against women.

For decades, I talked about “the abuse women experience,” but in recent months that has sounded too passive, almost as though women are complicit in the abuse, so now I try to say “the abuse women are subjected to,” to make it clear they are at the receiving end; they are the object of actions taken by someone else.

What about the words “victim” and “survivor?” I tend to use the word survivor because it sounds more empowered, but there are plenty of women who have been subjected to male violence who do not feel empowered and see themselves, rightly, as victims, not just of their assailant but of a culture than enables male abuse of women.

There is lots to learn

I realize that finding the best way to talk about violence against and abuse of women – a way that is respectful to the women who have been subjected to the violence and abuse, that is inclusive of all kinds of women and all kinds of abuse and that also identifies the issues accurately so we can work for real solutions – is a lifelong process. My language next year will be different (and, I hope, better) than it is today. The starting point to getting it right is to be conscious of the words we use and the impact they have on those who hear them.

For those of you who are interested in thinking about how we talk about men’s violence against women, I highly recommend an Australian resource called “Speaking publicly about preventing men’s violence against women.”

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