An advocate examines objectifying language in the discourse of gender-based violence
“How might you approach a person you know at a party that appears to be taking advantage of someone?”
I ask this question to a room of about 30 young men sitting before me. The hypothetical scenario is met with silence, which isn’t out of the ordinary during these presentations; in fact, it’s almost commonplace.
As a certified sexual assault crisis counselor and a violence prevention educator for The Aurora Center, I’ve fielded this uncomfortable silence so many times that the uneasiness now feels familiar. I stand there at the front of the room, waiting for a response. Eventually, a hand raises.
“I’d remind him that the girl he’s with could be someone’s sister or daughter,” the young man says.
The answer sparks several affirming nods. A few others respond, saying they would approach the situation the same way. And I realize that the room’s consensus is that the most effective form of forcible perspective for a man is one that erases the agency of the woman entirely. Essentially, the thought process is this: don’t harm her because there are other men in her life—a father, maybe a brother—who value her.
“Dear Men, Please remove the phrase ‘as a husband and/or a father of daughters’ from your vocabulary. Women exist outside your bubble,” one Twitter user, Abigail Shirley, said in a tweet shared over 30,000 times.
Gender-based violence should enrage you as a human being, not just as a husband or a father.
There’s something innately objectifying and near territorial about that phrasing. Gender-based violence should enrage you as a human being, not just as a husband or a father.
I’ve heard these phrases repeated many times during the presentations I give on consent and sexual assault, and with every reiteration, I am increasingly unable to mask my wincing. The nature of these responses isn’t malicious; it simply highlights the inadvertent ways in which patriarchal thinking is normalized in conversation. That doesn’t excuse it, though. The language of rape culture is the crux of the issue. The first step in rationalizing violence against any group of people is to objectify them, thus dehumanizing them through language.
Women aren’t impervious to these patriarchal norms, either. Instead, we internalize it. We get hit on at parties and in bars and rely on phrases like “I have a boyfriend” and “Sorry, I’m taken” because sometimes that’s the safest and quickest way to get someone to leave you alone: claim yourself as already owned.
I’ve found myself guilty of emulating those innately objectifying phrases without realizing the full severity of my words. The impetus of those throwaway statements is the belief that the person hitting on you would sooner respect the invisible man that’s not with you—your boyfriend or the person that claims you as “taken”—rather than the woman standing in front of them, expressing her disinterest.
“We need to do better at protecting our sisters, friends, co-workers, and daughters,” Ben Affleck said in a public statement, responding to Harvey Weinstein’s myriad of sexual assault scandals.
The malignant, beating pulse of gender-based violence is power and control.
The instinctual urge to protect women in these situations is understandable, although protection alone is retroactive at best when grappling with an endemic social issue like rape culture. The malignant, beating pulse of gender-based violence is power and control. This issue begins and ends with how men of all ages discuss, view, and treat women. Enlisting yourself as a “protector” is not enough.
Soon after his statement, Affleck issued a one sentence public apology for his sexually predatory behavior in the past that was recently brought to the public’s attention.
Often times the most uncomfortable conversations we engage in are the most crucial ones. That belief is what led me to become an advocate. That is why I love my job as a violence prevention educator for The Aurora Center. With every presentation I give, I enter a predominantly male space and attempt to close the dissonance between us in hopes that it will affect even the smallest change.
Catalyzing these discussions is an act of protest, an act of resistance. Continuing the conversation of rape culture and gender-based violence—and simply refusing to rest—is progress in and of itself.
I welcome that unrest.
I hope you do, too.