The Language of Violence: How Words Are Used Against Women

How is language used to hurt women? How can women use language to spread awareness about abuse and sexual assault?

A major aspect of the mistreatment and control of women is silencing them. According to Rebecca Solnit, silencing women is effective because language has a major impact on people’s beliefs and perceptions.

Let’s explore the language of violence and the negative and positive effects it can have.

Weaponizing Language

Solnit explains that, while language can be empowering for women who use it to describe their experiences, it can also be used destructively against them. This is well illustrated not only by the phenomenon of mansplaining—which involves a man supplanting the language of a woman with his own language—but also by the way sexism and misogyny manifest in online communities and on social media. 

Women in online communities—such as gaming communities—frequently face the language of violence through threats and harassment from men. According to Solnit, this is particularly common when they share opinions that men disagree with. The threats these women receive are a message that their voices are unwelcome, that there’s no space for them, and that their role is subordinate to men. 

For example, when feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian called out such behavior in these communities, people bombarded her with threats and hacking attempts. One man even made a video game that allowed players to punch an image of Sarkeesian’s face until it became bruised and bloodied. 

Online threats are frightening and genuinely dangerous, explains Solnit, because threats are often the precursor to physical acts of violence. Still, law enforcement and social media sites tend to ignore these threats—which are often made under the guise of “free speech,” though they’re really thinly veiled instances of hate speech. 

Using Language to Raise Awareness  

On the other hand, language can be used to advance women’s rights: People can use the power of language to spread awareness of and change perceptions and beliefs around gender-based violence. When certain words and terms become part of the common vernacular, it can elucidate new concepts and ideas for the general public. 

The coining of the term “rape culture,” for example, has helped spread awareness of how everyday behavior and subconscious biases perpetuate the mistreatment of women. Rape culture refers to an environment that normalizes rape and sexual violence through the media, objectification of women, and sexist language. This term helps describe how women have to shape their behavior around the fear of being sexually assaulted—something most men don’t have to do. Solnit explains that the adoption of this term into the general lexicon has helped many men better understand women’s experiences. 

The Limits of Language to Describe Sexual Violence

Not only does language impact our beliefs; it also enables us to write legislation that prohibits mistreatment, because you have to be able to name an act in order to criminalize it. While terms like “rape culture” have helped bring women’s issues into the public eye, some suggest that the language that we have to describe sexual violence is still lacking. They argue that we primarily have two options when discussing sexual violence: to use language that’s vague and impersonal, like “misconduct,” or to use language that’s specific and vivid to the point of being upsetting. They suggest that we need better ways to accurately describe sexual violence in order to understand and punish it. 

However, they also argue that after a word that describes sexual violence is established, society tends to either water it down until it loses its meaning (as with the term sexual harassment, which no longer connotes violence as it did when it was coined in the 1970s) or turn it into a pornographic term intended to evoke erotic pleasure. This latter change reinforces our society’s tendency to equate sex and violence (like how our slang terms for “to have sex” are often violent: “to bang,” or “to smash,” for example).
The Language of Violence: How Words Are Used Against Women

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Rebecca Solnit's "Men Explain Things to Me" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Men Explain Things to Me summary:

  • How "mansplaining" comes from a cultural tendency to devalue women
  • The attitude of control that motivates the mistreatment of women
  • The role that language plays in the advancement of women’s rights

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.