Language lets men off the hook

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Last week, a meme landed on my Facebook page from Broadsheet, a New Zealand feminist magazine that struck a chord and had me thinking of it for a few days.

In this era of the #MeToo movement, the way we talk about sexual assault, harassment and violence is becoming extremely important. Words matter. The meme read in part: “We talk about how many women were raped, not how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls were harassed last year, not how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls got pregnant in the state of Vermont, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”

It then goes on to talk about how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. It shifts the focus off men and boys, and onto girls and women. Even the term “violence against women” is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there is no active agent in the sentence. “It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at the term violence against women, nobody is doing it to the women, men aren’t even a part of it.”

The last part really stuck with me as I have used that term violence against women for years. They are right: the way we speak and write about gender-based violence is important. Take a look at how some media have been reporting on the Jeffery Epstein case. Many reporters say Epstein has been accused of having sex with “underage women.” Or raping “underage women.”

Well, think about it: there is no such thing as an underage woman; by law that is a child or a minor and as such cannot consent legally to sex.

Or how about “non-consensual sex with a minor”? Non-consensual sex is rape or sexual assault, and most minors cannot legally consent. So, sex with a minor is always non-consensual. Let’s call it what is: child rape, or statutory rape.

We are constantly shifting the blame by focusing on the woman or child, instead of saying what is really happening. Donald Trump described Epstein as liking beautiful women who are on the younger side. There is no grey area in law; underage means children.

Of course, Trump also talked about his then-teenage daughter on TV in a particularly revolting manner, saying how pretty she was and if she wasn’t his daughter, he would date her. No one seems to call him out on these kinds of comments.

So, instead of violence against women, can we call it men’s violence against women? Let’s challenge ourselves when we talk about or write about these issues. Let’s name it. For example, women don’t get raped by alcohol or because they are wearing a short skirt. They are raped by men. To say otherwise, we are letting men off the hook.

We also do it around the issue of abortion. In the United States particularly, men are regulating women’s bodies, banning abortions in some states or just making it impossible to get in others, sometimes with jail terms for the woman and their doctors.

But never do we talk about regulating men’s bodies. As one man tweeted last month, women can have sex with 100 men and only carry one pregnancy to term, but men can have sex with 100 women and have 100 pregnancies. Shouldn’t we be talking about men being responsible?

For some reason, we are constantly protecting men from their actions. Mostly without thinking. I for one am going to stop and take a look at the way I write or speak about gender issues.

So, next time you read a paper or watch the news, pay attention to how they are reporting men assaulting women or raping children. If you feel they are protecting the offender, speak out and let them know it is unacceptable. We all need to play a role, so step up and call it out. Let’s put the blame where it should be: directly on the offender.

Ruth Farquahar is a freelance writer based on Manitoulin Island.