The words we use, read and hear all have meaning. The way they are said, the way they are written can also have an effect on how we interpret the story they are describing.
A few days ago, I read an article on twitter from UK national newspaper which ran with the headline “Girl had sex with 100 men before the age of 16”.
Reading the headline and the article itself left me feeling both confused and angry. Confused because the article was detailing on ongoing trial that concerned a number of men who allegedly raped a young girl. The piece described that she was being shared by these men for sex. So, she didn’t have sex, she was raped surely?
Furthermore, the standout headline, used language that suggested that the instigator of these acts was the young girl herself, and in many ways to blame for what happened to her. No, she wasn’t to blame, victims are never to blame.
I took the decision to slightly alter the headline and share it via my own twitter page suggesting a much better headline – “100 men raped girl before the age of 16”.
A week after I posted this, the message is still being shared. Despite the link still showing the old headline the paper subsequently altered the story headline to better reflect what this case is really about (https://metro.co.uk/2018/09/08/girl-had-sex-with-100-men-before-she-was-16-rotherham-child-abuse-trial-hears-7925821/).
Ask a linguist about the power of language and they will really open your eyes to the impact that a continued use of language and a narrative can have on behaviour and attitudes. Think of the saying “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. I remember growing up hearing this saying and actually believing it. We all know that this phrase isn’t true. Words can be deeply hurtful but a narrative such as the Sticks and Stones sequence clearly reduces this impact.
When it comes to narratives around violence and abuse we all need to be careful both in our own choice of words but also how we interpret the words we read. In the world of gender violence, we often see a similar narrative which can affect how we either respond to the story or see no relevance to our lives.
My good friend, US Educator Jackson Katz describes how problems of gender violence, which include sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse of children, and sexual harassment, are viewed by society as “women’s issues that some good men help out with,” rather than seen as men’s issues.
Katz says that men and masculinity “have been rendered invisible in much of the discourse” around gender violence. In my view this isn’t surprising due to the lack of challenge we see being directed towards men as a dominant group. I know, I have privilege and over the years have forced myself to explore this privilege. A lot of the writing I do is my own way of exploring the world that I inhabit. This lack of challenge across society prevents power and privilege being examined by those who hold these dangerous tools.
Describing gender violence as solely women’s issues gives men an excuse not to pay attention. Ask any man what he thinks when he hears the term ‘women’s issues’? Watch as he squirms and says “that’s not my business”. This is the problem when we start to use terms like gender-based violence to describe violence against women. It gives men the excuse to say, “I don’t abuse, that’s not my problem”.
In my view the term gender-based violence needs to be used more in way that looks at gender as a factor in its commission. That needs to include violence against men and violence against children. When you apply a lens of gender you start to look at the role of perpetrator more so than the role of the victim. To prevent for the long-term we need to apply this lens.
In annual statistics we read about the number of women who were victims of domestic and sexual abuse, not the number of men who committed these acts. We focus on the number of children physically or sexually abused, not the number of men who perpetrated these acts. We hear about the number of teenage girls who fell pregnant rather than how many boys and men impregnated these girls.
Now I know that in some cases these acts are committed by girls and women however the fact remains that in the majority of these cases it is boys and men that are the perpetrators.
Katz describes how the use of the passive voice has the effect to shift the focus off the perpetrator and onto the victim. We still see the term ‘violence against women’ here in Scotland. Even this term is problematic. It simply happens to women, men aren’t even part of it.
Katz demonstrates the above in his John beat Mary activity:
John beat Mary
Mary was beaten by John.
Mary was beaten.
Mary was battered.
Mary is a battered woman.
The first sentence, Katz explained, “is a good English sentence: a subject, a verb, and an object.” The second sentence is the first sentence written in the passive voice, and according to Katz “a whole lot has happened. The focus has shifted from John to Mary. John is now at the end of the sentence, which means that John is very close to dropping off the map of our psychic plane. So it’s not just bad writing to use the passive voice, it’s also political. And the political effect has been to shift the focus from John to Mary.”
In the third sentence John is gone. In the fourth, the term “battered” is substituted for “beaten,” and in the final sentence of the sequence “you can see that Mary has a new identity. She is now a battered woman and John is no longer part of the conversation.”
Language has the impact of holding victims to account. We often see the word ‘accuser’ in the narrative to describe a victim. The victim is still a victim, but societal focus has changed on that person identity. We know victims of abuse blame themselves for what happened to them. The narrative in many ways shifts responsibility to them.
The headline I describe above may have changed but it’s clear that far too often victims find themselves as the focus whilst the perpetrator is missing from the discourse. To prevent violence and abuse for the long term we need to keep the focus on the actions of the perpetrator.
For those who responded to my tweet suggesting the race of the perpetrators was the issue. Can I suggest that you are further taking the responsibility away from the perpetrator. This has much more to do with gender than it has to do with race.