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, and that men also perpetrate violence against transgender, genderqueer and nonbinary individuals. Talk about the fact that 95% of abusers and 99% of perpetrators (those who choose to do harm) of sexual assault are men. Recognizing these facts allows us to 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 womxn.

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 relationship abuse is a type of gender based violence while continuing to stress the importance of providing resources and support for survivors of all gender identities.

Acknowledging the gendered nature of these crimes does not minimize abuse experienced in LGBTQI+ relationships. Relationship abuse and sexual violence remain gendered issues within the LGBTQI+ community; gender is implicated in the construction of heterosexism and transphobia, which both contribute to abuse and act as barriers to survivors seeking help. For more information on relationship abuse in LGBTQI+ relationships, click here.

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.

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 womxn, and idealization of violence, entitlement and masculinity. Such programming could also aim to empower womxn politically in order to advance their 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 men’s violence against womxn. 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 people who identify as this gender are inferior, making it easier to treat them with less respect, disregard their rights, and ignore their well-being. The same risks apply to the way society discusses and depicts the experiences of transgender people; often using dehumanizing language such as “tranny” or perpetuating the myth that they are simply “gender confused.”  The prevalence of these ideas and words contribute to the high rates of violence against and murder of trans individuals. Additionally, due to the prevalence of gender roles in our society, genderqueer and nonbinary individuals are often misgendered, which asserts the belief that their autonomy and wishes do not matter.
  • Question the ways in which the media objectifies women and dehumanizes transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer people. Think about how portraying women as objects, showing them primarily in a sexual or sexualized context, and eroticizing violence contributes to gender based violence. Consider the media portrayals of transgender individuals and how the traditional tropes painting them as confused. Also, consider how the lack of positive representations of genderqueer and nonbinary people in mainstream media contributes to gender based violence and discrimination.
  • Know that culture does not excuse or directly cause gender based violence. Many cultures have internalized patriarchal values and structures; in some instances, this is due to colonization and the violent introduction of Western social principles. Patriarchal beliefs enforce rigid gender roles and devalue the autonomy of womxn, which can lead to men feeling empowered to commit gender based violence. Unfortunately, intimate partner violence is prevalent in all cultures. Across the world, different cultures may have different responses to relationship abuse, and some may hold abusers more accountable than others. In every culture, many men choose not to abuse; therefore, cultural background should never be blamed. Ultimately, relationship abuse and sexual assault is always a choice made by the perpetrator (those who choose to harm).

To see more information for media professionals, click here.

Don't Blame the Victim

  • Recognize that womxn neither ask to be abused nor deserve to be abused — ever.
  • Avoid stereotypes about survivors 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 “They were attacked by their husband,” say, “Their husband attacked them.”
  • Instead of focusing on the actions of the victim, talk about the perpetrator’s actions. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t they leave?” ask, “Why didn’t he stop abusing them?” This framing helps present the problem in terms of the perpetrator’s (those who choose to harm) choice to abuse.
  • Do not focus on a victim’s clothing or their 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 survivor when they 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 and discrimination in the media. Refuse to purchase magazines, watch television, subscribe to websites, buy music, or support content that portrays womxn in a sexually degrading way or negatively stereotypes transgender, genderqueer and nonbinary individuals. Talk to your peers about your choice to stand up to sexism and discrimination.
  • Protest sexism and discrimination 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 womxn’s rights or discriminate against LGBTQI+ individuals, 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 womxn in general—don’t look the other way. Always make the victim’s safety a priority and talk to them before taking any action.
  • Be an ally to womxn who are working to end all forms of gender-based violence. Support the work of campus-based women’s and LGBTQI+ centers. Attend “Take Back the Night” rallies and other public events.

For more information see: Feminism in ActionGuys 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 relationship abuse, John Smith killed his wife”
  • DON’T SAY: “Survivors 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 (those who choose to do harm).”
  • DON’T SAY: “She was killed because her partner found out she was trans.”
    DO SAY: “Her partner killed her, and we must avoid transphobic victim-blaming.”
  • DON’T SAY: “they had a fight” or “it was a violent relationship”
    DO SAY: “their partner chose to be abusive”