Language is constantly evolving. Just as new words are added each year to the dictionary, other terms are updated to reflect our changing society, and value the rights of individuals and communities to self-identify. One of the most important reasons to learn and use appropriate terminology is empathy for those affected by inappropriate language. By being thoughtful with our wording, we can help end the negative cycles of violence that language can perpetuate when misused or weaponized.
How do I know what language to use?
As an organization serving those who have experienced abuse, our language is constantly being considered and re-evaluated to ensure that we are centering our clients. Although members of any community may self-identify in a variety of ways, choosing language that attempts to avoid assumptions and judgements is important when referring to those whose preferences you don’t know.
Domestic Abuse vs. Gender-Based Violence/Violence Against Women vs. Intimate Partner Violence vs. Abuse
Although many instances of violence against women occur in the home, this is not the only setting in which gender-based violence occurs. In the past, the term ‘domestic abuse’ has conjured up narrowly defined images of abuse which not all people who experience abuse identify with. As such, we do not frequently use this term in the context of our work. Although similar phrases such as ‘intimate partner violence’ can be an accurate descriptor in certain cases, they also exclude individuals who have experienced violence at the hands of family members or others, so we also use this language in a more limited capacity.
An umbrella term we use frequently is ‘gender-based violence’, as this can take many forms and look very different from person to person. This, however, also does not encompass all individuals facing violence. ‘Abuse’ is a term we will use generally as well and incorporates the experience of men in abusive situations that would not fall under the category of gender-based violence. By using more inclusive language we can encapsulate a larger breadth of experience and provide more opportunity for resources and support to those in need.
Survivors Vs. Victims Vs. People who have experienced abuse
No community is monolithic and just as people respond in different ways to abuse, many closely identify with, or alternatively reject, terms like ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’. Although you could argue that ‘survivor’ holds positive connotations, it is not our place to pass any form of judgement or world view upon another person should we not know that individual’s preferences. Language such as ‘people who have experienced abuse’ can help move away from personal views, while still centering the individuals themselves.
When deciding what language to use, it is also important to consider the intersectionality of the issue being discussed. Gender-based violence often impacts women from particular communities, such as Indigenous women, trans women, sex workers and women with disabilities, at higher than average rates. It is critical to understand the different types of barriers or challenges women from diverse communities face, as well as always considering whose experience should be centred in specific conversations. By extension, to fully value diverse voices, the language we use to refer to different communities must be by taking the lead of said communities.