Is it time we stop using the term "violence against women"?

It’s the tweet that’s gone viral over the last week:

Those words – from Jackson Katz, an American educator and filmmaker who has committed his career to preventing violence in sporting institutions and the military – have struck a chord globally.

Because, put simply, they’re true. When we talk about the epidemic that is “violence against women”, it’s an unhealthily unilateral discussion. Women are dying, we cry. Too many women are dying. Women need to speak up more, we need to unite and fight and create hashtags and march down streets and make noise, we decide.

We see the statistics; OurWatch says one woman a week dies from “violence against women”. We know the numbers. Many of us know more than a handful of victims’ faces. But the cause of all this destruction? It might as well be a thick black flog, an invisible and insidious poison, that’s leaving such a long path of dead women in its wake.

Very rarely, if ever, do we discuss the number of men who will inevitably beat their female partners at home tonight. The number of men who will coerce and intimidate those same women into silence. The number of men who will one day murder them.

What change are we really going to make if we only ever discuss the victims, not perpetrators?

Listen: The Mamamia Out Loud team discuss whether the #MeToo campaign was doing just that – highlighting the abused, rather than the abusers. (Post continues after audio…)

According to Professor Alison Young, a expert in Criminology from the School of Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, the language we use to discuss violence is incredibly important.

“I think it matters – if you change the tense, the grammar, you can change the politics,” Professor Young tells Mamamia.

“Language is really important, it shapes the discussion. We’ve seen in the last few days that the #MeToo movement is all about the victims and not the perpetrators, and the push to #IHave instead of #MeToo is all about reframing the language.”

The term ‘violence against women’ is “too general”, too “unspecific”, and fails to explain whose doing it or that it’s so common, Young says, adding: “using the phrase ‘domestic violence’ rather than just ‘violence’ also puts the act in a separate environment… somewhere cosy, somewhere private. People think of it as something behind closed doors that’s a family matter.”


When we discuss violence in all of its forms, our words couldn’t be more important, Young says. The way our language contextualises and illustrates an event seeps into almost every exchange we have about it.

It’s a fine point.

Think of the way Australian attitudes towards violence have shifted since the phrase ‘king hit’ was swapped for ‘coward punch’. The 2014 decision – which was backed by state governments – better reflects the perpetrator and the shame attached to their action, rather than focusing on the impact that action had on their victim.

Think of the reason we rarely hear the term “date rape” anymore – as our education and awareness of sexual violence has increased, so too has the way we discuss it.

“It’s now much more understood that rape often happens to people who know each other, or who are on a date. We know rape is rarely carried out by strangers and our language has changed to reflect that,” Professor Young says.

“Maybe that’s what we need to wait for in terms of ‘domestic violence’ and ‘violence against women’.”

We know the faces of Allison Baden Clay and Nikita Chawla - but how often do we discuss the men who claimed their lives?

Unfortunately, what makes largely ineffective terms stick is that they are not edgy, or in any way divisive: "They're bland, and the easiest to deal with."

Change often starts with language, and given 2017 is another horror year in Australia - Destroy The Joint reports 39 women have died at the hands of men in their orbit - the need for change couldn't be more urgent.

So, what could the alternative be?

One term Professor Young put forward is "men's violence against women".

Of course, with every phrase coined there will be detractors; those who yell 'not all men!' and highlight the very obvious fact that, yes, indeed, some violence is born from the fists of women.

We're facing a national epidemic here.

So maybe, just maybe, it's time we rethink the way we talk about it.

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