Here’s how to talk about the word “abuse”

It’s likely that you’ve found yourself having conversations about all of the sexual assault allegations in the news recently, and in doing so, you’ve probably stumbled into some grey areas, unsure of how to talk about the awful things people do. This happens a lot, mostly because our culture has found a way to normalize the way we talk about sexual and physical abuse in all kinds of relationships to the point that what we often call abuse in relationships actually enables it in a few ways.

The euphemisms we use for certain abusive acts — whether it be slang or actual legal definitions — really favor male privilege. Emotional and physical abuse happens in all relationships, despite any gender identity or sexual orientation, but like most everything else, the language we use to talk about abuse and assault is still driven by the male/female binary. LGBTQ couples often have the hardest time talking about physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in their relationships since it’s hard to convince a police officer that someone can be abused “by a girl,” or whatever stereotype of an “abuser” (or someone who’s abused) that person fails to adhere to.

The language we use — those euphemisms and assumptions based on old ideas of gender roles — make reporting, or even just confiding in a friend about being terrorized by a partner hard for many women. The way we talk about abuse of any kind is so ingrained in our minds that even as it’s happening, we have a way of believing something is “not so bad.”

Of course, language is only one aspect of why women don’t report abuse, leave, or feel in danger until it’s way too late, but it’s an important one. Hell, even the terms “domestic abuse” or “sexual assault” aren’t good enough to accurately describe the acts of violence women experience far too frequently.

It might sound like we’re nitpicking here, but those terms are a pretty big deal. Domestic abuse legally only means violence between a husband and wife in so many states that boyfriends or stalkers who hurt a woman get to keep guns, even when a woman has a temporary restraining order in her hand. Can we all just agree to at least start calling it “intimate partner violence” or find another way to make it more inclusive (and that includes children in violent homes), so that we can protect women and kids from all types of possible predators?

We use the term “sexual assault” instead of rape more often now, because the definition varies so much state to state. For example, there are places where they still call it “forcible rape” or that, in order to report a rape, you have to show that at first you tried to “fight back,” as if that’s ever a safe option or even scientifically possible sometimes. Research shows that women who fight their attackers, or are armed, are more likely to be injured and that sometimes our brains just shut down during a trauma, which means we can’t fight back. But still, our go-to language immediately diminishes the severity of attacks like this — “sexual assault” makes us think ofsomeone groping someone, whereas “rape” doesn’t hide the brutality of what happened.

When we choose our words cautiously, we might be dulling what should sting when its talked about.

Those are the biggies, but there are so many other ways we label different kinds of abuse, especially emotional abuse, that make it seem like NBD, even to ourselves. Terms such as a “boys club” or “locker room talk,” for example, need to be washed out of our mouths with soap in the name of ending rape culture as soon as possible. There is no such thing as a harmless sexist joke, just as there is no such thing as harmless racist jokes. Allowing men to get away with talking about women as sexual objects or “less than” in any way hurts all of us.

Likewise, we tend to often excuse men for behavior that we would never let a woman get away with. For example, a boyfriend who comes every night drunk and throws your belongings around the living room isn’t “just venting” or letting off some mystical masculine steam. That’s abuse whether it happens once or a hundred times.

Emotional abuse has entire volumes of euphemisms that let us all assume some warped gender roles that enable a man to overpower his partner almost daily.

Someone who checks in on a partner or questions them about their whereabouts isn’t “protective,” but “possessive,” which are very different things. One partner should never be “in control” of the finances or your social calendar. That’s them isolating another human. It’s abusive. So is gaslighting and other forms of psychological manipulation. Just because some behaviors are common, that doesn’t mean they’re less damaging or more acceptable.

It’s likely we turn to euphemisms to protect ourselves from the terrifying, often debilitating, actions of our partners, but until we get real about language, nothing will change.

The way we speak about abuse of all kinds makes excuses for it. When a victim tells her friends that her partner is “just joking” when he spends an entire meal making jokes at her expense or is straight-up mean and dismissive — that’s emotional abuse, not being cranky. If you’ve never been in an abusive relationship or witnessed one, it can be hard to tell what’s abuse and what’s not. Hell, it can be hard for someone who has, or who’s in the middle of it. The best gauge is often that sick feeling in your stomach (that, unfortunately, we often make excuses for too).

So what to do? Our culture has an inefficient way of talking about abuse of all kinds, which means that the first thing we can do is be really careful about our language. That might sound naive or way too hopeful, but words really do matter. It makes a difference. It can be scary sometimes, but correcting the way a friend is talking about abuse, or “locker room talk,” or even defending her own partner over a glass of wine is essential. Because if we don’t start calling abuse what it is, we’ll keep fooling ourselves into letting things slide.

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