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How we talk about domestic violence matters

Domestic violence continues to make headlines and inspire conversations. These discussions are essential because change only happens when people become engaged with an issue.

But talking about abuse can be challenging, so here are several things to remember, whether the conversations are happening in our Twitter feeds, at the water cooler or around the kitchen table.

Leaving does not equal safety. Every time we ask why a survivor doesn’t leave, we are placing responsibility for ending the abuse on the wrong person. We are assuming the survivor will be safer if they leave, when really they will be safe only when the person abusing them chooses to stop.

Abusive people are at their most dangerous when their partners attempt to leave. When we focus on leaving as the solution, we are not only misplacing responsibility for the abuse, but we are giving some very dangerous advice.

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We should instead ask this: What makes someone think they are entitled to treat their partner with violence, coercion and disrespect? What would have to be in place to prevent them from continuing to do such harm to their partner?

Make the perpetrator visible with our language. Often when we talk about abuse, we make the conversation about anything but the person perpetrating the violence.

For example, we say things like, “Corey got beaten up.” That tells us something about what happened to Corey but not who did it. Or we say, “Corey was in an abusive relationship,” as if the relationship caused the problem, not the person in it who chose to use violence.

When we talk about abuse in this way, we make invisible the person who is doing the harm — and when perpetrators are invisible, they are impossible to hold accountable and they are free to continue their behaviors. As often as possible, we need to be clear about who is doing the harm, to whom and with what impact.

Anyone can experience abuse — but not everyone is affected equally. It is true that no one is immune from the possibility that their partner will abuse them. It is also true that not every demographic experiences or perpetrates abuse at the same rate or in the same ways. In about 85 percent of domestic violence cases, we are talking about men’s violence against women. But LGBTQ+ people experience disproportionate amounts of abuse at the hands of partners.

We need to recognize people’s experiences of abuse, regardless of identity. At the same time, in order to design effective interventions for abusers and survivors, we must be able to sort out the differences in people’s experiences and see the patterns.

Complicating our thinking in this way is challenging, but it is the only way to end abuse for all people.

Domestic violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We cannot effectively address the underlying causes of domestic violence without understanding the connections to other kinds of privilege and oppression.

In just one example, a recent study uncovered racial bias in media coverage of celebrity domestic violence cases, finding that black male celebrities are more likely to be characterized as criminals, while the behavior of white male celebrities is more often justified and excused away.

If we are to end the practice of some people acting on the belief that they are entitled to use violence and coercion in their relationships, then we must also address the many other ways in which people act out their entitlements at the expense of others in order to maintain their privileges.

Our language matters. No matter where and with whom we have our conversations about abuse, the overwhelming odds are that someone with personal experience is listening.

What we say sends a message. Even when we are chatting with friends or posting online, our words have power and they help create our culture. So we should consider the following: Are our words helpful, supportive and liberating to someone who has experienced violence? Would they make someone feel inclined to see us as a helpful resource? Are they making the perpetrator of the violence visible and holding them accountable? Are we reinforcing the belief systems that make people think abuse is OK?

These suggestions are not about getting it right every time. None of us will do that. But we can deepen the quality of the conversations that we have. Doing so will move beyond raising awareness to creating true understanding and shifting cultural norms. That is the definition of prevention. That is the power of language.

Regina Rooney is public awareness coordinator for Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.


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