Language Matters

Home Truths: Rethinking Our Approach To Family Violence


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Child protection practice is most concerned with men’s perpetration of violence against women in the context of their family. Women are both victims and survivors of abuse. What we write and what we say about violence against women and children matters. Language is not neutral –it is loaded with meaning. It communicates to others how we, as individuals and as representatives of an organisation, interpret, evaluate and make sense of a perpetrator’s violence, and the individual and social responses to the violence. Individual and organisational attitudes, values and priorities are embedded in and made public by our language.

Perpetrators use language to conceal, minimise or mutualise violence. Victims may use language that downplays or denies violence to avoid pressure or judgment from others. Third parties may use language that supports or promotes their particular interests or positions in relation to violence against women.

Language is about choice - choosing what we say, how we say it and to whom we say it. Our choice of language has direct and immediate impacts on perpetrators and on women and children. It has the potential to make women and children who have been abused feel confused, scared or at fault. Equally it can make them feel supported, energised or empowered. Language we use can make perpetrators angry or feel vindicated. Language frames and sets the tone for our interventions and relationships with women, children and perpetrators of violence and with the agencies we work with to keep children and mothers safe and free from violence.

Women and children living with violence need us to tell it like it is- we need to place responsibility for the violence with the perpetrator, we need to use the right language to understand and document the efforts used by women and children’ to resist violence and we need to understand and document the context in which they make decisions and take action.

How is language used to describe violent events?

Language can be used in the following ways to manipulate the account and meaning of violence and violent events:

  1. Conceal violence by using language which pathologises and/or eroticises the acts of violence.
  2. Mitigate or obscure perpetrators’ responsibility by misrepresenting violent acts as requiring the participation of two people rather than one.
  3. Conceal victims’ responses and resistance to violence by displacing consideration of the victim’s feelings and experiences with those of the perpetrator.
  4. Blame or pathologise victims by portraying them as passive objects, reinforcing the stereotype of a victim.

Perpetrators of violence may use language in different ways to achieve these objectives to influence their public appearance, promote their own accounts of the violence in the public space, entrap victims of violence, conceal violence, and avoid responsibility for their role in committing violent acts.

Language: effect and impact or response and resistance

Women and children are often described as being affected or impacted by violence. This casts women and children as “passive” objects that have had something ‘done to’ them. We focus on and embed our responses in what’s wrong with the woman rather than on the actions or the perpetrator.

For example, it is common for people to say that violence causes depression and despair. However depression or despair are not automatically induced impacts –they stem from a woman’s capacities, her life experiences, her interactions, the responses she receives and the ways she makes meaning of the violence. Depression or despair are responses to violence not an effect of it. Thinking about and describing “responses” rather than “effects or impacts” portrays women as active agents with qualities and capacities with which we can engage.

To keep women’s responses to violence at the forefront of our thinking and documentation, grammatically we need to keep women in the subject rather than object position of a sentence. Take the following conversation as an example:

Carol: “ Last night when I was working late my male boss hit on me”

Ellen: “Oh my god, how did that make you feel?”

Ellen’s choice of language removes the violent act from the conversation-“hit on me” is downgraded to “that”. Ellen takes the conversation away from the violent event and focuses the discussion on how Carol felt-she grammatically omits the violence and the identity of the perpetrator from the conversation. Ellen makes the conversation about Carol and the “impact” the violence has on her emotions. Ellen does not ask Carol how she responded to the violence. The opportunity for Carol to talk about the skills, knowledge and strategies she used to handle the violence is lost. Carol has been relegated to the passive object. We know very little about what she stands for, whom she cherishes, what she detests,

 what she knows and believes, how she manages adversity and how she understands her place in the world. Responses and resistance have been recast as effects and impacts and this directs interventions to managing Carol’s emotional state. We end up treating or focusing on the symptoms of violence, not the cause. Taking the example above, an improved response could be:

Carol: “Last night when I was working late my male boss hit on me”

Ellen: “Oh my god, what did you do when he hit on you? How did you respond?

When we exclude acts and patterns of resistance from our analysis we narrow or limit intervention options. Searching for the ways in which women and children constantly respond to and resist acts of violence, sheds light on their sense of purpose. It adds scope and richness to our understanding and interventions and uncovers a pattern of persistence, action and agency that is essential to the maintenance of dignity.

The language of effects and impact does not capture or properly represent a woman’s suffering or her joy, her persistence or her power. The language of resistance is refreshing, liberating and energising. It helps us begin to understand a woman in her totality rather than being defined by the acts of violence she did not choose.

Making violence the responsibility of the perpetrator

Language used well can highlight a pattern of the perpetrator’s behaviour over the course of the relationship. Language is the ‘architecture of accountability’. It makes clear who did what to whom and who is responsible for harms created by the violence.

Acts of violence are unilateral, i.e. violent actions taken by one person against the will and well-being of another. Violence is not mutual. Using terms or language that implicate victims as having caused or contributed to the violence “mutualises” acts of, and  responsibility for, the violence. It hides the fact that acts of violence are the sole responsibility of the perpetrator and covers up the unilateral and deliberate nature of the violence. Some examples of unilateral versus mutualising terms are listed below:

Unilateral

Mutual

   

forced his mouth on hers

kissing

wife-assault, beating

abusive relationship

forced vaginal penetration

sex,  intercourse

beating, attack, assault

fight, conflict, argument

international child rape

child sex tourism, sex with minor

   

Mutualising language implies there is a pairing or relationship between the perpetrator and the woman they violate. If she was more compliant or obedient then he would not be so demanding. If she didn’t nag then he would not get angry. A woman’s behaviour is not the cause of the violence. It is a perpetrator’s calculated use of violence to control and dominate his partner. Although violence against men exists it is usually very different to violence against women. Evidence shows it is less frequent, less injurious and less likely to be motivated by a desire to control and terrorise. When violence against men occurs our language needs to reflect who is responsible for the violence.

Mutualising language often evokes and results in mutualising interventions. Workplace abuse is addressed by conflict resolution and spousal abuse is addressed by couples counselling. When powerful or influential people use mutualising language the message they send is clear- women are complicit in the abuse while men can be excused from it. They confuse criminal behaviour with character and question the validity of women’s accounts of victimization and downplay the seriousness and criminality of the violence. They reinforce societal norms promoting women’s lower status and worth and normalise gender inequalities that enable men to perpetuate violence against women.

Implications for Practice

Language has the power to misconstrue, obscure and normalise violence against women and children. Equally it can illuminate responsibilities and resistance. We need to think and be deliberate in what we write so there is an accurate and complete description of a perpetrators pattern of violence and harm and women and children’s ingenious efforts to resist violence and preserve their dignity. We also need to listen for what is not there –what is not being said and what is not being asked. Some practice tips to keep in mind include:

  • Use language that reveals the deliberate and patterned nature of violence. Talk and write about his violence, his choices to be violent. Explore and record his history –his use of violence against his partner over time or his use of violence against a number of women across time
  • Be alert to the ways men talk about their partner’s behaviour as a catalyst of violence, that she was somehow to blame for the violence. “She provoked me” or “If she hadn’t done that I would ...”. Bring the conversation back to his violent behaviour- what he did. Be consistent and clear that you hold the perpetrator responsible for the violence
  • Listen for ways perpetrators deny any deliberation and intent. Does he talk about not meaning to harm his partner. Avoid using terms such as ‘he lost it’ or ‘he lost control’, which indicate that the perpetrator has no control over his actions, that he was overwhelmed and that the violence was unintended. Use words such as his choice, deliberate, calculated, planned, purposeful, to show the deliberate nature of the violence and to highlight his responsibility. Likewise using “episodes” or “periods” of violence or words such as repeatedly or again rather than incident or event exposes the patterned nature of his violence
  • Listen for the ways perpetrators conceal the extent of the violence against women and children. Phrases such as “hit”,
  • “knocked down” or “pushed her” do not adequately convey the degree of force used by many perpetrators. Ask about and record how he hit her, where he hit her and what he used to hit her. Ask and record the perpetrators about his understanding of the harm his violence caused
  • Avoid the use of language that mutualises violence or suggests consent. Avoid using language that implies consent. Make it clear who did what to whom. Avoid words such as abusive relationships, sex with a child, sex or intercourse, fight, argument. Tell it like it is –violence is unilateral, unwanted and it is not erotic. Think about terms such as rape, an assault, a violation, a beating or an attack
  • Listen to how a perpetrator talks about his partner’s feelings and responses. Does he conceal her efforts to resist violence so he can cover up his violent and controlling responses to her resistance. Documenting what he does not talk about or think about can provide insight into a perpetrator’s attitudes and beliefs about his violence
  • Try not to allow the perpetrator to change topic. Keep the acts of violence and the identity of the perpetrator apparent in conversations and in all documentation. A verb describes what a noun is doing. Violence is about a perpetrator (noun) being violent (verb) towards someone else. Avoid turning acts of violence into a noun or using vague imprecise terms such as “that” or “it” or “DV” because this obscures the perpetrators identity, actions and responsibility. These terms do not provide any details about the nature of and responsibility for the violence. Using acronyms or abbreviations like DV also minimise or normalise acts of violence
  • Remember to describe women as the subject of the violence not as passive objects of violence. This will ensure that the women are viewed as active rather than passive and will also provide a more accurate description of the violence
  • Listen for, isolate and document acts of resistance. Women and children may not conceptualise or see what they do as acts of resistance. Gathering this information involves
  • careful gentle questioning that enables women and children to explore the meanings they attach to their responses
  • Questions or prompts that may help unearth resistance include;
  • What did you do? How did you do that? What kind of expression was on your face? Did you feel like you could do something? What went through your mind? What did the perpetrator do next? Again how did you respond?
  • What is it like for you to think about your response as resistance? What do you think about that?
  • Have you talked with anyone about the violence? How did they respond? How did that make you feel? Does anyone know you feel or act like that? What do they say and do when you tell them?
  • Get information about the context-where were you? Who else was there? What did you do? What did others do? What else was happening at the time? What did they say to you? What was their body language like?
  • Men may minimise or excuse the violence. It is rare that a man denies the violence took place. Separate the man from his behaviour. Recognise and document the deliberate nature of the violence and the times men were able to control themselves and not use violence. Describe his attitudes, his motivations and his capacities so there is a more accurate and extensive picture of the perpetrator, his violence and his control that can either help or hinder the cessation of violence.

To hear more about the use of language watch Allan Wade’s presentation here.