Language Matters

Cyndy Caravelis

Cyndy Caravelis

Center for Domestic Peace Board Member

I recently read an article that stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t a new article, but thanks to the power of social media, it received new life when an excerpt of it was circulated online by gender scholars. The article was speaking about the importance of the language we use when discussing domestic violence. In the article, educator Jackson Katz described how the use of terms like “accuser” and “battered woman” have absolved men from taking responsibility for their actions.

Katz shared the following: “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

“So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. It shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them … men aren’t even a part of it!”

When I think of this process in a larger scope, I think of how we host self-defense seminars for women, but not ‘control-yourself’ seminars for men. We lecture teenage girls on the school dress code instead of teaching boys that the female body does not exist merely as an object for their attention. The entire process of how we communicate ideas about gender roles and behavior puts the burden on women to not be victims instead of instilling in men the self-control and integrity necessary to not be offenders. Instead of just teaching women about ‘red-flags that you’re in a controlling relationship,’ let’s also teach men, ‘red-flags that you are abusive.’

Let’s do better. Let’s change our language so that the onus to not commit acts of domestic violence is placed on the abuser instead of focusing exclusively on teaching victims to be vigilant against potentially abusive relationships.

This item is excerpted from our July, 2021 newsletter. To subscribe to future newsletters click here.