How the Language We Use Can Help Combat Men’s Violence Against Women

Violence against women is an area that is supported and tolerated in our culture in various ways – tiny reportage rates, even tinier conviction rates, stereotyping of both victim and perpetrator, massive difficulties in obtaining barring orders, victim blaming, meagre sentences, suspended sentences, donations instead of convictions, stigma, shaming, disbelieving, humiliating or silencing victims. The list goes on forever.

None of us are perfect human beings and we all fall prey to our unconscious prejudices and biases that we absorb from our environment and socialisation. The key is to bring awareness to these assumptions and challenge them. We can change how we think and communicate about sexual violence and all violence against women in a way that contributes positively to finding a solution, rather than shutting down the conversation out of helplessness, defensiveness, and fear.

We can change how we think about sexual violence in a way that contributes positively to finding a solution, rather than shutting down the conversation out of fear.

One area we have total power over is how we talk about these crimes, the terminology we use, and the way we communicate and espouse our opinions. The language we choose can make a huge difference in how we think and feel. Language is vitally important in the context of who we are and the society we live in. Where we place words or punctuation matters. Whether we contract or not matters. Words and how we place them in sentences give meaning, structure and depth to whatever it is we are talking about. Words get serious when used in serious situations. They get heavier and thicker. Suddenly they have clout. As Stephen King says, “words have weight”.

The term “Violence Against Women” feels like a distant concept, an unstoppable force of nature – an earthquake or a tsunami or a natural disaster rather than something that is perpetrated by individuals. It’s a passive, perpetrator-omitting phrase, keeping us comfortably in a state of “Oh jeez isn’t it terrible…” It informs without igniting any kind of action. Jackson Katz points out that “it’s like saying shit happens”. It’s just something that unfortunately occurs.

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But what if we put the perpetrator front and centre of how we speak about “Violence Against Women”? What if we call it what it is: “Men’s Violence Against Women”? Even if there is nothing we can do about it, let’s name the problem and name the agent. Let’s give the abusers the responsibility they have earned. Women don’t get raped by streets or by alcohol or by parties or by their homes. They get raped by men in these places. They don’t get beaten by a mystical force, their partners beat them. At the very least, let’s acknowledge who is involved. If ‘Violence Against Women’ triggers an “Oh dear, those poor women” response, “Men’s Violence Against Women” triggers a “Who are these men?” response. Now we know who’s causing it. Now it feels like we can, or should, do something about who’s causing it.

Even how we choose our grammar omits the perpetrator and highlights the victim, something that is mirrored in how we treat this subject in our society. Consider this passive sentence construction:

“Jane was raped by Paul”.

Our focus is on Jane. Poor Jane got raped. Paul is there too, but he’s not in our sentence’s spotlight. He’s lurking guiltily off to one side. He is not the star of the sentence like Jane is. It’s not an unusual sentence to see. We see and hear this construction everywhere, all the time; “a girl was raped by her teacher”, “an elderly woman was attacked by her neighbour”, “a woman was raped in the park”, and so on.

Now if we were to activise this sentence, notice if this one feels any different;

“Paul raped Jane”.

Paul is the subject. We are thinking about Paul’s actions as opposed to Jane’s suffering. Jane is still there, but Paul, the agent of the act, is now in the spotlight.

There is an amazing omitting of active language used when we are talking about violence against women. As we have just seen, once we use the passive, we feel passive, we look on it passively, the perpetrator is off to one side, ignored, as we bemoan the subject’s fate and speculate about her – leaving our unconscious biases and assumptions about the rapist unchallenged. The worst part of this is that we think about Jane more than we think about Paul. We consider the situation, not the perpetrator.

Even if there is nothing we can do about it, let’s name the problem and name the agent. Let’s give the abusers the responsibility they have earned

This is not exactly anything new; our focus has always been on the victim or the situation. We ask why the woman doesn’t leave the man, instead of asking why the man beats his partner. We ask “How many women got raped last year?” instead of “How many men committed rape last year?”

If we want to stop something we have to look at the thing that is doing it. Switching the grammar around to put the perpetrator in the sentence spotlight allows us to see the abuser as accountable for his actions. It invites us to see the men behind the rapes and takes the burden of attention away from the victim.

Every single one of us is responsible for the victim blaming, rape enabling culture we live in. It’s time to make it personal because it is personal. One in three of our female friends has experienced sexual violence. One in five has been a victim of domestic abuse. The rapists and abusers are people we also call friends, relatives and colleagues. This is already in our lives, whether we like it or not.

We can choose to be self-aware and challenge our thinking. We can choose to be curious about change and take a non judgmental look at how we think and communicate in relation to these crimes. Any social change has to begin with the individual, and we can choose to be part of that progressive change.

We can choose to prioritise survivors. Putting the focus of the crime on the perpetrator is siding with them – it’s telling them that we know who was responsible for their pain. It’s telling them that we see the perpetrators. No, changing our language won’t stop rapists from raping, but it will tell them how we think about their actions, where we know the responsibility lies, and ultimately it will show them that we are not going to be part of a culture that enables them to rape again.

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