Sunday, July 3, 2011

What's in a word?

Domestic violence, intimate partner violence, violence against women, partner abuse, domestic terrorism, sexual assault, rape... the list could continue for at least another 5 lines. Alas, what's in a word? What does it really tell us? Are the words really that important if everyone understands? I mean, they do understand, right?

The term for violence between partners has long been debated. Historically domestic violence was the term used; however, problems arose when the term was looked at more critically and individuals began to recognize that partners don't always live in the same domicile and if we do consider all parties living under one roof, then won't we also need to consider violence between siblings?

Furthermore, though slowly changing, how do we account for violence between partners of all sexualities? Not all people are allowed to marry; thus, it's crucial we not use language that excludes the consideration of violence among all people, regardless of personal characteristics.

Also, what about the gendered nature of such language? We know statistically that men are more often perpetrators of violence toward women than are women toward men. Consequently, is it not more exact and correct to call a spade a spade and use the term violence against women?

A final piece of food for thought today is how the use of narrow or broad terms may impact various components of our battle to end violence against women.  If we use a narrow term, such as rape, how might that affect the feelings or understanding of a woman about her experience if she was not "raped" but was indeed sexually assaulted?  Does this contribute to her likelihood of trivializing, minimizing, or self-shaming and self-blaming?  Sexual assault is the crime that goes most underreported.  If we use language that allows or asks a woman to redefine her experience, she will be less likely to report it and seek physical and/or emotional support. Additionally, use of a broad term allows for a woman who has perhaps experienced multiple acts of sexual violence to understand each experience as such.

Critiques of broad language? Well, are you familiar with the phrase, "everything but the kitchen sink"?  Use of broad language can create a breakdown of communication between individuals as they attempt to understand exactly what happened. Moreover, it is much more difficult to accurately and effectively study and discuss 50 behaviors as opposed to 1 specific behavior. In other words, if you are interested in rape, then use the word rape. If you are discussing workplace sexual harassment, then use this term.  Similarly, use of terms such as domestic violence or intimate partner violence include a myriad of forms of violence: physical, emotional, economic, etc.

So, what's in a word? Quite a bit. The language we choose to use in our everyday lives can tell a person quite a lot about the ways we think about violence (or any other topic really).  Just think about the following:

  • Rape vs. sexual assault vs. Non-consensual sexual interaction
  • Female genital mutilation vs. Female genital cutting vs. Female circumcision
  • Intimate partner abuse vs. Intimate partner assault vs. Intimate partner violence
  • Same-sex intimate partner violence vs. Opposite-sex intimate partner violence
  • Same-sex physical assault vs. Opposite-sex economic abuse
  • Violence against women  vs. Violence

Is it important to know the couple is a teen dating couple versus an elderly couple? Is it important to know that the couple is same-sex or opposite-sex?

So, how do you feel about all of this? What comes to mind when you think of the word "assault"? Now, what about the word "abuse"?  Is it important? What words do you choose to use when discussing these topics? Let's get this dialogue rolling! No, seriously. Leave a comment. Tell me what you think and then come back later to see what others have said. So ask yourself:

1 comment:

  1. Words have always been a potent tool and/or a powerful weapon. Even the Bible (John 1:1) says: "In the beginning was the Word..." For me, the word "assault" connotes active violence; "abuse," for me suggests more subtle, perhaps more sinister, chronic mistreatment. "Intimate partner" is very complicated, because "intimate" can mean simply a familiar acquaintance, or a sexual partner. You're right: our choice of words is incredibly important. (Of course, as a retired editor, I may be a bit prejudiced.)