Warning: Serious rant ahead

I’m pissed off.

Last Saturday morning, I flipped my laptop open in my Sault Ste Marie hotel room and turned to the CBC News website to do a quick scan of the news before getting ready for my workday. My eyes were drawn to the headline:

“A man was charged with her sexual assault 3 years ago. He’s never been extradited”

“Her” sexual assault? Really?

When women are subjected to gender-based violence, that violence isn’t, as this headline makes it sound, theirs. Use of possessive language like “her” is incorrect and, worse, offensive. The violence in this story belongs to the perpetrator; the woman was victimized by that violence.

Unfortunately, the headline wasn’t the only problem with how this story was written. About halfway through the article, the reporter described the event as “a sexual assault between two adults.”

No, no, and no again. While it may be accurate to describe a barroom brawl as taking place between two people – if they are reasonably evenly matched and mutually responsible for, say, an argument getting out of hand —  gender-based violence should never be so described. Two people do not have a sexual assault; sexual assault is an act of violence and aggression committed by one person against another.

The language we use when talking or writing about gender-based violence matters – a lot.

Mutualizing violence

I first stumbled on the work of Linda Coates and Allan Wade several years ago, when I heard their presentation about the importance of language in this context. It was an electrifying moment, because they clearly articulated many of the unfocused ideas and thoughts that had been swirling around in my brain. Much of what I have written here is drawn from and influenced by their work.

Language that mutualizes gender-based violence is a serious problem, and it doesn’t just happen in news headlines and articles. We’re all guilty of talking, at least some of the time, about gender-based violence as though it is some sort of interactive dynamic between two people when, in fact, it is a one-way street of violence done by one person to another.  Mutualizing the violence has the effect of hiding and denying the responsibility of the person (most often a man) using the violence and of making the person being harmed (most often a woman) appear to be complicit with the violence to which they are being subjected.

A woman’s abusive partner is not “her abuser;” he’s her partner who abuses her or her abusive partner. Theirs is not an “abusive relationship,” it’s a relationship in which he is abusing her.

An incident of intimate partner violence is not a fight that “got out of control” or an argument “gone wrong.” A relationship in which the woman is being abused by her partner is not a “high conflict” relationship, although you could be forgiven for thinking so, so frequently is this term used in family court.

Sexual violence is not “having sex”

Misuse of language about sexual assault is rampant. As Coates and Wade say, sexual assault is not sex, vaginal penetration is not sexual intercourse, submission is not consent and child sexual abuse is not sex with a minor, any more than car theft is auto sharing or bank robbery is a financial transaction. And let’s just get rid of words like “fondle” altogether. Fondle means “to touch gently in a loving way;” it’s never an appropriate word to use when describing sexual violence.  

I want to cry every time I see a news article about an act of gender-based violence that uses the word “alleged.” While all accused people are – and should be – presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the use of this word immediately reinforces the myth that women exaggerate or fabricate stories about violence and abuse.

There are simple alternatives that avoid the word “alleged” altogether. Rather than saying “The victim alleges that she was assaulted . . . “ the journalist could write “The victim reports that she . . . “

If charges have been laid, the article could say “The accused has been charged with . . . “

The CBC should have known better than to use the language that started me on this rant, but it’s far from the only offender. (And there are some great tools for journalists and others who want some help to get the language right.) Gender-based violence is not a new or rare phenomenon, but we all need to be more intentional with the language we use when we talk about it.

Those of us who work with survivors see them at their most vulnerable. We also see the incredible strength and courage that many of them find within themselves. We owe them no less than to use accurate language to describe the violence to which they have been subjected.

In the words of Allison Russell:

“I think of all of the woman/Who disappear/Who disappear/I’m stronger than eggshells, I’m tougher than luck/Never been despised so much or hit so hard, hit so hard/I couldn’t get back up.”

Let’s make sure our words don’t make it harder for them to get back up.

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