The Language of Sexual Violence


By Erika Bailey, UWO Health Promotion Intern

Survivors have been speaking out about their experiences with domestic abuse, sexual assault, and other forms of gender violence. We applaud their courage. These stories are difficult to share. Our first reaction isn’t to analyze their narrative style, but I think it should be considered more deeply. Let me explain why by sharing a few simple sentence structures described by Jackson Kats in a recent Ted Talk.

Example 1: “John beat Mary.”

Example 2: “Mary was beaten by John.” 

Example 1 is a correct English sentence; a predicate follows the subject. The subject of this sentence is clearly John. As readers or listeners, we put our focus on John and his action. But you’ll notice that this isn’t typically the way we hear gender violence cases presented. It’s more commonly described a Example 2.

Example 2 is also a correct English sentence with similar subject/predicate structure. However, the subject of this sentence is Mary. We have now shifted our focus from John to Mary. In fact, in some translations of this, John gets lost all together.

Example 3: “Mary was beaten.”

Example 3 tells a story that John is no longer a part of. He has been dropped from the conversation entirely. This has shifted to what’s called the Passive Voice. It is a narrative structure in which the subject is acted upon. As opposed to Active Voice, where the subject is doing an action. Using passive voice to discuss forms of gender violence may be one of the reasons this issue still exists today.

When we use a passive voice to tell Mary’s story, we instinctively begin questioning Mary because she is the focus of our attention. Well what was she doing to provoke such an act? Was she asking for it? Where was she? How could she let this happen? John is nowhere to be found in our train of thought, he slipped right through the cracks. This narrative style inherently enables victim blaming.

We should be using an active voice to tell John’s story. If John were to become the subject of the sentence, our instinctive interrogation will be of him instead of Mary. What was he thinking? How could he do such a thing? Who taught him this behavior was acceptable? This narrative style allows us to form internal judgments against John, the perpetrator, rather than Mary, the victim. This is the way we need to start structuring our conversations to form a sense of accountability within them.

We shouldn’t be so focused on what happened to Mary, but more focused on what John did. John needs to be part of this narrative in order to hold him accountable, right? If we don’t start holding John accountable he’s going to continue doing what he’s doing, right? It’s up to us as bystanders and storytellers to change the discourse into an effective outlet for deconstructing the language of blame.

***This conversation does not need to be gendered to be effective. Specific name examples were used to draw clear conclusions based on the language presented and discussed in Jason Katz’s Ted Talk. Realistically, regardless of gender, the perpetrator should always be the subject.