Violence against women, as with everything else, begins with how we communicate. Through our language, we have created a culture in which women are seen as weaker, quieter, more submissive, and the lesser of the sexes.
Society has bred young men to believe that if they don’t see women that way, then they are weak and submissive. By targeting women, we have thereby targeted men – we have set them up to be angry and confused with our expectations that they be aggressive, competitive, or in control. We have told them that if they don’t subscribe to these beliefs and the corresponding behaviors, they will not fit into our society. Men commit most of the violence against women.
The words we use create an umbrella under which all further interactions will be shaded. That is, they lay out a context; they are the background, the foundation onto which everything else is built. It’s like providing the world with rose-colored glasses, except the color is much less pleasant.
Youth and social norms
In childhood, there is no greater insult to a young man than to tell him that he acts “like a girl.” Parents coach their boys that they need to be strong and impenetrable, never to cry. They are inundated with blue walls and clothes and toys, and never pink. Little girls are discouraged from being too aggressive, too interested in contact sports, too opinionated, or even from having their hair cut short.
Unfortunately, these verbal lessons follow us for the rest of our lives. In teenage years, a young woman with many suitors is a “slut,” and a young man pursuing many girls, a “stud.” Among adults, the word “bitch” is thrown around with not a second thought, sometimes not even maliciously. In marriage, a woman is expected to take the name of her male spouse, and is the subject of ridicule or suspicious speculation if she doesn’t. Observers think that they know something about her: she’s difficult; she’s “independent;” she’s “one of those.”
Prejudice and language
This language lends to the overall perception of what “ought to be.” When men commit domestic violence, for example, they do not think about their place in society or how they were taught to be strong and aggressive. They operate from a much deeper place– a place so deep that they don’t even know that it is there. This culture instills in them that they should be strong and aggressive when they’re young; they never think about WHY they do what they do.
Racial prejudice often operates the same way. If when you were young, your parents told you that certain groups of people were “dirty,” it would take a lot of work on your part as an adult to undo what your parents had taught you. Even then, you might have a hard time not thinking that those people were dirty, even if you knew it would be wrong in society to say it out loud. It would take even more to believe that those people were in fact, not dirty.
Gender roles and language
There is awareness to the inequality of men and women; we are not in the world of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique any longer. When she released that revolutionary text about a women’s place in 1950s America, this was all newly articulated. Now, the state of gender roles is well covered. There is concern about the mixed messages we give boys, the double standards we have for single men and women, and the disparate wage gap. However, boys still don’t want to be “girly,” women can’t be too “dolled up,” and the wage gap is huge.
Only in a world where only “men” are created equal can there be violence against women. We must first unravel the social fabric that allows this inequality, and re-craft it into a space where everyone is actually equal. And we can do that by first changing the way we speak.
Nicole Caputo is a reproductive rights and education activist and she does this through her work in freelance journalism. She is the Assistant Editor of the women's magazine hangPROUD. Nicole lives in New York.