Words can be swords in domestic violence

Language can be the key to changing views: Domestic violence is not "an argument that got out of hand", it is an assault.
Language can be the key to changing views: Domestic violence is not "an argument that got out of hand", it is an assault.

When it comes to awareness of domestic violence, we are in an unprecedented time in Australia. Media reporting, social media campaigns, research and public debate has been heightened as the reality hits home. One woman per week is being killed by a partner or ex-partner.

It is timely then to examine the language we use to talk about domestic violence. It changes the way we think about and view victims and offenders, and how we respond.

Domestic violence and violence against women are described as something that “happens to” women. Headlines describe acts of violence as if by an invisible force, rather than a human choosing to be violent. By talking about “violence against women” rather than “men’s violence against women”, the offenders are written out of the story and become invisible in our speech and questioning. It puts the emphasis on the victim.

Making women the focus leads us to ask questions about them: “Why are so many women being abused? Why doesn’t she leave?” We imply this is a “women’s issue”. In reality, 95 per cent of violent offenders are men, whether the victim is male or female. It is clearly a men’s issue.

When we change the language to focus on the offender, the nature of our questioning about men’s violence against women can change. Why are these men abusive? Why do they choose to use power and control over their wives/partners and children? Where do they get their views and beliefs?

Dealing with the cause of the violence is more productive than looking at why women aren’t doing more. Women are already doing all they can to avoid and rally against violence. The violence will end when offenders stop choosing to be violent.

So often, the language of mutuality is used to describe violence against women. This is because social interactions are mutual. When violence is involved, the interaction is no longer mutual, therefore unilateral expressions must be used. The problem arises when mutual language is used to describe unilateral violence, thus implicating both the offender and the victim in the violence.

Instead of saying “she left a violent relationship”, it would be more accurate to say “she left a violent man”. A “relationship” cannot be abusive, but an individual within a relationship can be. The consequences are that the offender is not identified and remains invisible. In a “violent relationship”, either the victim is also violent, or she is responsible for his violence.

Instead of “unwanted sex”, it is crucial we use “rape/sexual assault”. Use of the word “sex” to describe “rape” is a critical problem. 

Instead of “an argument that got out of hand”, we need to say “an assault”. An argument is mutual and on equal grounds. An assault is not a natural extension of an argument, but a unilateral act of violence. When mutual language is used, the violence is minimised and absorbed between the two people involved. Even if the victim is not accused of also being violent, she is still held accountable for the violence.

By using more accurate language, the extent of the brutality is clearer and the offender is rightfully placed in the position of responsibility. Keeping mutual language exclusively for mutual social interactions also redefines a relationship as something that exists in a situation of equality.

Rachael Mackay is a family violence trainer. Emmeline Tyler is a writer and researcher for Women's Health Goulburn North East. White Ribbon events against domestic violence are taking place across the country this month.