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How the language we choose can help combat violence against women

Language matters – none of us are perfect human beings and we all fall prey to our unconscious prejudices that we absorb from our environment.

WE MIGHT NOT be able to physically stop a man raping a woman, or a child from being abused by a family member, or stop a man abusing his partner, but we can all do something to contribute positively to the fight against 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, or suspended sentences, donations instead of convictions, stigma, shaming, disbelieving, humiliating or silencing victims – the list is endless.

None of us are perfect human beings and we all fall prey to our unconscious prejudices and biases that we absorb from our environment. The key is to bring awareness to these assumptions, and challenge them. We might not be able to physically stop a man from raping, but we can change how we think and communicate about it in a way that contributes positively to finding a solution, rather than shuts down the conversation out of helplessness and fear. A curiosity and an awareness of these biases and assumptions we hold is a good place to start.

Language, and how we use it, is vitally important

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 about male violence against women.

Language, and how we use it, 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. How we choose to use our words matters. Words get serious when used in serious situation. 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 like an earthquake or a tsunami – 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.

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 agent. Let’s name the problem. Let’s give them the responsibility they certainly 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.

Turning the spotlight on the perpetrator 

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

‘Jane was raped by Paul’.

Our focus is on Jane. 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 this construction everywhere, all the time; ‘A girl was raped by her teacher’, ‘An elderly woman was attacked by her neighbour’, and so on.

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

‘Paul raped Jane’.

The focus here is on Paul. 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, as he should be.

There is an amazing omitting of active language use when we are talking about violence against women. Look up any article on the subject – it’s outstanding. And, 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.

Holding the abuser responsible 

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 raped?’ 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 makes us see the abuser as accountable for his actions. It makes us 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 four of our female friends has been a victim of rape. One in five has been a victim of domestic abuse. The rapists and abusers are people we call friends, relatives and colleagues. It’s already in our lives, whether we like it or not.

But we can choose to be self-aware and challenge our thinking. We can choose to be curious about change and take a non judgemental 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, necessarily, but it will show them how we think about their actions, where we know the responsibility lies, and ultimately show them that we are not going to be part of a culture that enables them to rape again.

Check out the White Ribbon Ireland campaign.

Mia Doering is a trainee psychotherapist. She is currently writing a book about sexual violence against women. Follow her on Twitter @miathedolphin

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