How to Talk About Relationship Abuse

How to Talk About Relationship Abuse

Keep gender in the picture.

Relationship abuse and sexual assault are gendered issues, and it is impossible to get to the root cause of the problem without maintaining a gendered analysis.

  • Acknowledge that the majority of relationship abuse and sexual assault is committed by men against women. Talk about the fact that 95% of abusers and 99% of perpetrators of sexual assault are men. Recognizing these facts allows us think and talk about how perceived gender roles contribute to the prevalence of gender based violence, and to consider men’s role in ending violence against women.
  • Be aware of how powerful language can be. When talking about relationship abuse and sexual assault, acknowledging the gender of the perpetrator more accurately describes the dynamics of the crime and helps to raise awareness about the root causes of gender based violence.
  • Talk about men’s violence. When boys commit acts of violence, it is referred to in the media as “youth violence.” If a girl commits a crime, her gender is usually a part of the story. Acknowledge men’s violence to call attention to the ways in which stereotypical masculinity encourages violence in general and contributes to gender based violence.
  • Acknowledging the gendered nature of these crimes does not minimize abuse experienced in LGBT relationships. Relationship abuse and sexual violence remain gendered issues within the LGBT community; gender is implicated in the construction of heterosexism and homophobia, which both contribute to abuse and act as barriers to survivors seeking help. For more information on relationship abuse in same-gender and LGBT relationships, click here.
  • Acknowledging the gendered nature of these crimes also does not minimize the suffering of men that are victims of abuse. Instead, it highlights the fact that domestic violence is a type of gender based violence while continuing to stress the importance of providing resources and support for victims of all genders.
  • Do not call awareness programs “prevention.” Prevention programming will strive to change the gender dynamics and social norms that condone and support gender violence. Prevention programming will primarily be aimed at boys and will seek to counter the cultural messages that support the objectification of women and idealization of violence, entitlement and masculinity. Such programming could also aim to empower women politically in order to advance women’s interests in the public sphere. See Prevention vs Awareness for more info.

Develop a media and cultural awareness.

  • Be aware of cultural norms that condone or allow for gender based violence. Be able to recognize myths that support violence against women. For more information, see our Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Call attention to sexual stereotypes and how they influence attitudes and behaviors. Social roles and expectations affect an individual’s decisions about relationships. Examining stereotypes is essential to changing the dynamics that can lead to relationship abuse.
  • Discuss the power of words, especially when spoken by people with power over others. We live in a society in which words are often used to put women down and where referring to a girl or woman with a derogatory and degrading name is common. Such language sends a message that females are inferior, making it easier to treat them with less respect, disregard their rights, and ignore their well-being.
  • Question the ways in which the media objectifies women. Think about how portraying women as objects, showing them primarily in a sexual or sexualized context, and eroticizing violence contributes to violence against women.
  • Know that culture does not excuse or directly cause gender based violence. All cultures have traditions of resistance to domestic violence as well as forms of acceptance of it. Unfortunately, relationship abuse is prevalent in all cultures. Across the world, different cultures may have different responses to domestic violence, and some may hold abusers more accountable than others. Ultimately, relationship abuse and sexual assault is always a choice made by the perpetrator.

To see more information for media professionals, click here.

Don’t blame the victim.

  • Recognize that women neither ask to be abused nor deserve to be abused — ever.
  • Avoid stereotypes about victims and perpetrators of relationship abuse and sexual violence. For more information on myths about gender based violence, see these Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Avoid using the passive voice. Instead of saying “She was attacked by her husband,” say, “Her husband attacked her.”
  • Instead of focusing on the actions of the victim, talk about the perpetrator’s actions. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t she leave?” ask, “Why did he didn’t he stop abusing her?” This framing helps present the problem in terms of the perpetrator’s choice to abuse.
  • Do not focus on a victim’s clothing or her sexual history. Explain how doing so inappropriately blames the victim for the perpetrator’s actions. Do not say that the victim is “asking for it” or deserving of abuse. Abuse is a choice made the perpetrator; no one can provoke someone into being abusive.

For more information, see Avoiding Victim Blaming.

Speak Up: Ways to take Action

Support Survivors

  • Believe people when they tell you they’ve been abused. Too often people do not believe a victim when she first discloses the abuse. Support what they say about it. Listen to them.

For more information, see How to Help a Friend and How to Help a Coworker.

Speak Out

  • Know your audience and what you hope to achieve. Knowing your stats is always helpful. For more information on the prevalence of gender based violence and for up-to-date statistics, please visit Futures Without Violence.
  • Protest sexism in the media. Refuse to purchase magazines, buy videos, subscribe to websites or buy music that portrays girls or women in a sexually degrading or abusive manner. Talk to your peers about your choice to stand up to sexism.
  • Protest sexism in your life. When your best friend tells a joke about abusing women in some way, say you don’t find it funny. When you read an article that blames an abusive relationship survivor for being abused, write a letter to the editor. When laws are proposed that limit women’s rights, let politicians know that you won’t support them.
  • Be an active bystander. If a brother, friend, classmate or teammate is abusing his partner—or is disrespectful or abusive to girls and women in general—don’t look the other way. Always make the victim’s safety a priority and talk to her before taking any action.
  • Be an ally to women who are working to end all forms of gender based violence. Support the work of campus-based women’s centers. Attend “Take Back the Night” rallies and other public events.

For more information see: Feminism in Action, Guys Getting Involved, and Take Action

DO’s and DON’T

  • DON’T SAY: “a woman was sexually assaulted”
    DO SAY: “a man sexually assaulted a woman”
  • DON’T SAY: “John Smith killed his wife”
    DO SAY: “In an act of domestic violence, John Smith killed his wife”
  • DON’T SAY: “Women lack the courage to leave abusive relationships.”
    DO SAY:“It is not about courage, but about being able to access resources and navigate the safety risks imposed by the perpetrator.”
  • DON’T SAY: “they had a fight” or “it was a violent relationship”
    DO SAY: “her boyfriend was abusive”

A Note on Terminology

Domestic violence/relationship abuse refers to intimate relationships, not child abuse. Because the vast majority of relationship abuse is committed by men against women in heterosexual relationships, this website sometimes contains the female gender pronoun when referring to the abused person. Domestic violence/relationship abuse happens at the same rate in LGBTQQ relationships and all of the information on this site is relevant for male victims and for individuals in same-gender relationships. In addition, please see our resources on same-gender relationships. Our goal is to encourage helping professionals to be gender inclusive. This includes using gender-neutral language when working with individuals, while continuing to analyze gender as a construct that has implications on gender-based violence in both heterosexual and same-gender relationships.