As children raised in North American society, many of us have been taught that ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you.’ Catchy as this rhyme may be, reality is not as simple. Words are common weapons used to attack, accuse, belittle, threaten, intimidate and define people. And yet, because they leave no visible marks unlike physical assaults, verbal assaults are much more difficult to prove and asses.
Case in point: Ever since the video of Ray Rice knocking out his now-wife, Janay Rice, in an elevator was made public, there has been much discussion online, in the media and within private circles about domestic violence and why women stay in abusive relationships.
On the video, we saw the physical act of Ray Rice’s closed fist flying, making contact with Janay’s face and her body slumping to the floor. We saw him then drag her unconscious body from the elevator and into the parking garage.
The effects of the physical assault were obvious to the eye.
The power of words. What we cannot see however, is the effect that our words are having on Janay in the aftermath of the video’s release. Labeling and defining her as a ‘victim’ may not have the same repercussions as a punch to the face, but one can’t underestimate the emotional and psychological consequences of doing so.
In this sense, Janay is not alone. The numerous women, children and men who have experienced domestic violence likewise stare down the ‘victim’ label daily.
During my senior year of college I volunteered for a SafeHouse for women and their policy was that no matter what the circumstance or situation, a woman involved in an abusive relationship was a victim 100% of the time; that she had no choice in her situation. I always took issue with this overly simplistic, black-and-white view of domestic violence.
To say that a woman is always the victim seemed to me to be another way of re-victimizing her; by defining her and her circumstances, we were taking her voice, her power away.
Today, the word ‘victim’ has largely become associated with powerlessness, and the word ‘survivor’ seems to be preferred.The problem with the word ‘survivor,’ however, is the implication that it applies to a person who has lived through an experience that has ended. In this context, it ignores individuals still living in abusive situations, relegating them to ‘victim’ status and minimizing their agency.
Perhaps that’s why some women I have met consider themselves to be ‘thrivers’ of domestic violence. They aren’t comfortable with the victim-survivor dichotomy and the social overtones that come with either.
We can’t underestimate the influence of words. We teach children to use and choose their words wisely because of the power they have. Certain words are known to be bad and inappropriate, but there seem to be other words that fit into a more gray area of whether or not their use is in fact harmful.
While I was studying special education, one professor passed on invaluable advice: the practice of ‘people first language.’ In other words, I work with students who have learning disabilities, not learning disabled students. The same advice should be applied here: A woman experiencing domestic violence or a person in a violent relationship.
Words like victim or survivor may indicate these realities, but they have dehumanizing aspects attached to them, and not everyone may be comfortable with identifying as either/or. Above all, listen to and take cues from the very individuals affected by violence; they are our best guides on how to define their situations.
After all, we are working with people, not their labels.