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Jennifer Drew on the Harms of Gender-Neutral Language in Discussing Violence Against Women

lmarshalls Icon Posted by Lucinda Marshall

December 12th, 2007

Cross-posted from the Feminist Peace Network blog:

UK activist Jennifer Drew is on a roll with totally spot-on analysis of how the media and politicians perpetuate violence against women with gender-neutral language. In a blistering critique published on The F Word, she writes,

“Take, for example, these phrases and sentences: “Stop violence against women”. “Xxx number of women and girls were raped and sexually abused last year.” “Xxxx number of women were subjected to domestic violence last year.” “You are more likely to be raped or sexually abused by a person known to you than a stranger.” None of these phrases informs me just who is committing these acts of violence against women and girls. ‘Domestic violence’ implies only something which families commit against each other.”

Drew totally nails why gender-neutral language is so dangerous and why it perpetuates the harms of male violence against women, explaining that gender-neutral language is a,

“(R)ed herring, to disguise its use to maintain and perpetuate the status quo.

One wherein male accountability must never be questioned or raised because common sense supposedly tells us violence against women is not a male problem but rather a female one. Under this world view, violence against women happens because it is women who supposedly provoke and cause male acts of violence to be committed against them. Men are not accountable because they are always provoked by women’s behaviour, dress or attitude. But this simplistic explanation ignores the reality that men as a group have been given much greater social power than women as a group.”

In a critique posted to the Global Sisterhood Network, Drew also provides excellent commentary about a recent article in The Guardian (UK) entitled, “Today’s girls prefer to look sexy rather than be clever.” Here are her comments, reprinted with permission:

“Yet another article has been published in the UK’s Observer newspaper which once again subtly blames women and girls for the one-dimensional portrayal and promotion of women and girls as sexualised commodities for men to use/abuse.

The promotion of the sexualisation and commodification of women and girls here in the west is part of the same issue. Namely the continued global oppression and denial of universal women’s rights and dignities. As Houzan Mahmoud rightly wrote, ‘we the women of the world need to make it clear that women’s rights are universal. They transcend culture, religion, nation, borders and tradition.’

Here in the west the cultural commodification and sexual objectification of women’s and girls’ bodies continues unabated. Note, how academic Carol Platt Liebau uses the word ‘modesty’ to present an either or representation of women and girls. Once again women and girls are not human beings but instead it is their sexuality which defines them. Either women and girls can be ‘good modest girls (sic) or they can be sexualised commodities and hence sluts.’ Men and boys however are not advised to adopt modest behaviour. It is a no-win situation for women globally, either way we are blamed because we are too sexual or we are
blamed because we refuse to put men’s sexual and other needs first.

Nowhere in this article does the author even mention the media is male-dominated and it is a male agenda which drives the sexualisation of women and girls. Given the fact the only message women and girls continue to receive is one which says women can only be empowered and achieve equality with men if they become men’s sexualised playthings. So, it is not surprising that girls are growing up believing these misognystic myths. Either way women and girls are the losers - wherein male control and domination continues without challenge, because only women and girls need to be admonished and controlled. Men unlike women are autonomous human beings and there is no problem with how male sexualities and dominant masculinities are constructed and reinforced by
the media and other institutions such as the mainstreaming of pornography and profit.”

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