The Power of Words

Battered women. Domestic violence. Victim of abuse. What images and feelings do these words bring up for you?

When we talk about relationship violence — including intimate partner violence, gender violence, child abuse and other forms of abuse — the words we choose matter. Language has the power to uplift and empower, or discourage and depress; to help people leave abusive relationships, or further embed them in trauma; to broaden legislative support, or stall progress. If we can talk more openly and effectively about the realities of relationship violence, we can better encourage people to seek help, educate the greater community, and expand our reach to support those affected.

Shining a Light on Language

Women Against Abuse in Philadelphia, PA, uses both “domestic violence” and “intimate partner violence” in their communications, noting “it’s a nuanced issue … abuse occurs within a spectrum of relationships, and it is our intention to ensure that anyone that is in an abusive relationship will be able to access interventions.” NoSilence NoViolence recently updated its Style Guide to use more empowering, inclusive and accurate language in our communications. “Inclusive language is complex and multifaceted, and can vary in complexity for different organizations,” says Victoria Scalo, an NSNV volunteer who researched and updated our guide. Staying current with language trends ensures individuals and corporations use the most empowering and respectful language regarding abuse and those affected.

Equally important is the courage to discuss relationship violence at all. Silence around “sensitive” topics can discourage people from getting help, and even limit the growth and reach of services available. Research in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect notes that even within legal arenas, the “high emotionality” of child sex abuse can cause legislators to “disengage and [avoid] objective policy discussions.” The authors promote age-appropriate education for youth and young adults about healthy relationships, busting common myths around child sexual abuse, and translating experts’ knowledge into lay terms to better educate the public in order to promote improved laws, services and support. NSNV promotes the same through our Healthy Relationships workshop series, our email and social media communications, events connecting our donors with volunteers and survivors, and funding for legal and socio-psychological support.

Busting Social Media Myths

One arena where people don’t hesitate to discuss abuse is on social media. When celebrities are found to be in abusive relationships, numerous sites will post photos with click-bait captions merely to boost their “likes” and subscribers. Tragically, these sensational snapshots often promote the myth that abuse is most prevalent in heterosexual, long-term couples, while in reality it affects countless people regardless of age, gender, relationship status, or living situation. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence, and stalking, among other forms of abuse.

Similarly, gender-based violence is much more widespread than the simplicity of social media can capture. Where the term “gender violence” used to mean violence against only women, “gender-based violence” also encompasses violence toward people who identify with non-traditional definitions of gender, or between partners within same-sex relationships. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), quoting a study from the UCLA School of Law, reports that LGBTQIA+ people are “nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.” NSVRC cites that 44% of lesbians and 26% of gay males have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, while bisexual, trans people, and women of color experience even greater risks.

It is important to note that even positive terms, such as “survivor,” can be a bit misleading, as they imply one has “overcome” abuse — as if it is finished and done. However, many struggles remain long after abuse ends, such as mental and emotional challenges and physical impairments, as well as complicated legal proceedings. National Public Radio recently reported that domestic violence is a leading cause of brain damage, while the Joyful Heart Foundation lists dozens of long-term effects, stressing that “healing takes time [and] can vary widely person to person due to individuals’ responses to stress, age, and the frequency and severity of abuse.” As we choose to use respectful and empowering terminology, we also understand the challenges survivors face, and acknowledge their need for financial, legal and socio-emotional support over the long term.

What to Say

So how do we upgrade our language around relationship violence? It can seem difficult to navigate the ever-shifting landscape of language, but many leading organizations offer promising guidelines. Whether you are speaking with someone involved in an abusive relationship, want to update terminology in your workplace or social circles, or seek to improve legislation and support for services, we recommend the following resources:

We are hopeful that through the power of words, we can together stem the tide — and eventually eliminate — relationship violence in our communities. We invite you to join NoSilence NoViolence in elevating our language to better support survivors, affect positive policies, and stop abuse.

Sources used in this article:

Women Against Abuse:
Child Abuse and Neglect: “Changing the paradigm: Using strategic communications to promote recognition of child sexual abuse as a preventable public health problem.” Apr 2021.
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: “Myths about Intimate Partner Violence and Moral Disengagement: An Analysis of Sociocultural Dimensions Sustaining Violence against Women.” Nov 2020.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
“Domestic Violence’s Overlooked Damage: Concussion And Brain Injury” May 2018:
Joyful Heart Foundation:

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