Call a domestically violent and abusive relationship 'volatile'? Your sympathy is with the perpetrator

Language matters. It's time we reframing the conversation around domestic and sexual abuse to stop blaming victims

Louise Whittaker
Tuesday 09 July 2013 10:51 BST
(Getty Images)

The words that we use say a great deal about how we interpret difficult topics. But these words we choose have a direct impact - particularly when it comes to domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Talking about 'indecent images of children' or 'images of child sexual abuse' may feel difficult when compared to the ubiquitous term 'child pornography'. But if we do use the term pornography to denote indecent images of children, we are using the term preferred by the men who use images of child sexual abuse to get aroused. Not so comfortable now, is it?

When it comes to domestic violence, the terms 'tempestuous/volatile/acrimonious relationship' are often used. As well as crime of passion', 'altercation' and 'lovers tiff'. Call a domestically violent and abusive relationship 'volatile'? Your sympathy is with the perpetrator. You're aiding him by excusing his behaviour. And in the large majority of cases, the woman is the victim (93.4% of cases recorded in 2011/12 were male perpetrators).

Using terms like these completely ignores the issue of power. He is likely to be more powerful than her - not just physically, but emotionally, too. After all, he doesn't live in fear. He isn't worried about disclosing to someone and finding an under-trained social worker on the doorstep talking about 'leaving' and 'protecting the children'. Let’s not use language that gives him more power - after all, this contributes to his ongoing abuse of her, and we aren't going to collude with that, are we?

Or are we? We also ask 'why doesn't she leave?'. How about we reframe the question: why doesn't he stop abusing her? Let us not make survivors and victims any more responsible than they already feel.

Attacks are sometimes referred to as a 'tragic, isolated incident'. Maybe she’s never reported him to the police and so her murder 'couldn't have been predicted'. Maybe the neighbours didn't think it was any of their business. Maybe the police labelled it as a 'domestic'. Maybe there were 'extenuating circumstances'. Maybe she 'provoked' him; perhaps she was leaving. Maybe it happened 'behind closed doors'. Maybe it was considered a 'family matter'. A woman and possibly her children are dead because we used terms that help us ignore the ongoing abuse which culminated in him killing them.

Reading about rape in the media and you'll sometimes see the terms 'sex crime', 'sex case' and 'sex scandal'. Rape is not about sex, arousal or desire. It is about power and the need to control. Let us not call them 'sex crimes' or any of the other tabloid-esque terms. Let us call them what they are - rapists and sex offenders.

We also talk about 'innocent victims', as if somehow some victims are more deserving of our support than others.

Let us use the language of survivors and victims, not the language of perpetrators. When the UK Prime Minister uses the term 'child pornography', we know we have a lot of work to do. Let us not waste the power that our words can have.

Louise Whittaker is not the author's real name

A longer version of this article can be found here

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