Three little words

I don’t become enraged easily or quickly. I get angry, certainly, and, because I am not a patient person, it doesn’t take much to get me annoyed. However, both my anger and annoyances are relatively mild and, for the most part, pass quickly.

For some people, anger is a distinctly physical experience: they literally see red or hear a rushing sound in their ears. Others describe it as a red hot feeling or say their desire to lash out is uncontrollable. Until recently, these have not been my experiences with anger.

Blood in my ears

Recently, I was listening to CBC Radio replay an episode of Out in the Open. Hosted by Pia Chattopadhyay, the show describes itself as tackling timely topics from different angles. I like it and listen when I can. My mood was cheerful as I began listening to the program about a halfway house for ageing and aged men ex-cons. It was interesting, and I was certainly a fan of the notion that prison is not a good place for old people, even those who have committed serious crimes.

Towards the end of the show, Chattopadhyay interviewed a volunteer at the halfway house and asked him what offence the resident he was working with had committed. Oh, the volunteer responded, he had raped “a couple of women.”

I immediately felt an enormous rushing sound in my ears and could not hear (whether this was physical or psychological I don’t know) the next several seconds of the interview. It was as though time had frozen and I was stuck having to hear those words “a couple of” echo in my head over and over again. I am not sure that I have ever felt so instantaneously and physically filled with rage.

Just a little respect

Why? Because that man had been convicted of raping a knowable and definable number of women. It may have been one or two or even three. The least those women are owed is the respect of being counted individually when someone talks about the person who raped them. If, I thought, I am to respect him and his right to dignity in his old age (which I do), then those who work with him owe the women he harmed the same respect.

The program was not about the crimes committed by the men in the halfway house, so there was no follow-up from Chattopadhyay to this remark; she moved on to discuss the challenges for ageing inmates, especially those with serious health issues, in the institutional setting of jails and prisons.

But it left me thinking about the many ways in which dismissive or disrespectful language is used when violence against women is discussed.

Speak the truth

I have written before about the inappropriate use of words like “grope” and “touch” to describe sexually violent behaviour but those are not the only two problematic words.

All too often, we hear comments like: “Well, she wasn’t hurt” when what the person really should be saying is: “She was not physically injured.” I don’t know any woman who has been on the receiving end of male violence – be it sexual, physical, psychological or financial – who wasn’t hurt by it.

Violence against women in the family – even serious coercive controlling violence – is labelled a “domestic dispute,” as though it were a matter of two people unable to agree on what to make for dinner. “Things just got out of hand” is a frequent but inaccurate way to describe a specific incident, most often set in the context of ongoing abuse, which does not attach any responsibility to the person engaging in the abusive behaviour. The phrase “abusive relationship” creates the concept of mutual responsibility for what should be identified as one-directional abuse by one partner of the other.

When people use labels like “innocent victim” to describe, for instance the children in a relationship where the father is abusive towards the mother, it implies that the mother is somehow less than innocent and, therefore, less deserving of our compassion or concern.

The same phrase can also be used to distinguish among victims: some – generally those who are most like us – are seen as innocent, while others – those less like us by virtue of race, class, profession, mental health status or drug use – are not quite so innocent. It is only a small step from that to thinking that some victims are at least partially complicit in the violence that has been done to them: “She asked for it by dressing like that/going to that bar/drinking so much/being a sex worker/not leaving him.”

Speaking intentionally

We all need to become more conscious of how we talk about violence against women. What we say has an impact that goes far beyond survivors. It influences public attitudes and policy, including how laws are written, as well as social programs for both survivors. It creates the kinds of communities we live in.

The words we use to describe violence against women have to reflect its ugly reality rather than trying to soft shoe around it. And, when we talk about the men who engage in abusive behaviour, we must find ways to offer compassion and understanding while holding them accountable for what they have done and providing respect to the survivors of their abuse.

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