Does 'gender neutral' language serve to cover up male violence?

Gender-neutral language applies to male criminals, but not to their female victims, argues Jennifer Drew

Jennifer Drew, 3 December 2007

Almost unnoticed a subtle shift has been occurring: gendered terms such as man, men, boy, male or masculine are no longer being used by the media and politicians when reporting or commenting on incidents of male violence against women.

Increasingly, men and boys are being defined as 'people' whenever the media or politicians are reporting or analysing male violence against women. Of course, whenever women or girls commit crimes of violence, their gender is never omitted by the media. Instead, the media ensures the reader or listener is immediately made aware a woman or girl has committed a violent crime. So, why then, is the gender of male perpetrators consistently omitted?

We hear the police advising the public to be careful, because a dangerous rapist is at large. But it is not 'the public' who need to be careful; rather it is women and girls, because rape is predominantly committed by males against females

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.

Nowhere is the gender of the perpetrator or perpetrators mentioned: I can only assume from these phrases and sentences that violence against women is a women's issue, because men are never mentioned. Obviously, it must be women and girls committing sexual and physical violence against other women and girls. After all, the media minutely examines and focuses on women's behaviour and attitude when violence is inflicted upon them. As such, common sense informs us that women alone are responsible for causing and allowing violence to be committed against them.

In fact, research and evidence has consistently shown that the vast majority of individuals committing rape, sexual abuse and physical violence against women are male. But we have a problem, because this would mean using such taboo words as man, men, boy or boys, which we must assume would cause much discomfort among countless men and women. It would enable pertinent questions to be raised, questions such as: why are so many men committing acts of sexual violence against women? Why are so many adult men and teenage boys raping and sexually abusing women and girls?

Likewise, whenever the media reports cases of a woman or women having been raped (by a man or men), that taboo word, 'male', disappears again. Instead, we hear the police advising the public to be more aware and careful, because a dangerous rapist is at large. But it is not 'the public' who need to be careful; rather it is women and girls, because rape is predominantly committed by males against females.

Violence against women is a gendered social issue and, as such, we need to keep on asking why so many men believe it their right to inflict physical and sexual violence upon women

Gender neutral language is also increasingly used in cases wherein children bully, intimidate or harm other children. In general, the media will inform us that a child or children have raped or murdered another child or children. The media consistently omits to name the gender of these perpetrators. In the case of the Columbine Massacre, the media consistently referred to the bombers as 'children' despite the fact that they were white boys. However, whenever a female child is the culprit, the media has no hesitation in reporting this within the very first sentence.

Herein lies a conundrum: if gender neutral language were to be applied correctly, then the gender of any perpetrator would never be mentioned by the media. Instead we would consistently read the perpetrator was an individual, person or if it was a group of perpetrators, then the correct terminology would be 'people.' The reason why this doesn't happen, is that the 'neutrality' of gender neutral language is a red 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.

The culprits are responsible for their crimes, not the victims, so they must be the grammatical subject of such sentences

Gender neutral language serves a dual purpose, in that it diminishes male accountability and responsibility, while simultaneously protecting men from having to face reality. Violence against women is a gendered issue, and it is predominantly men who commit acts of violence against women. This does not mean, of course, that all men commit acts of violence against women: they do not. However, violence against women is a gendered social issue, and as such, we need to keep on asking why so many men believe it their right to inflict physical and sexual violence upon women. Pro-feminist men have begun to ask difficult questions, such as how men are socialised into narrow definitions of 'masculinity' which presume any behaviour termed 'feminine' is automatically inferior to 'masculine' behaviour. Another difficult questions being raised by pro-feminist men is why are women as a group presumed to be automatically inferior to men and why the definition human is a male-centered one.

I strongly recommend that, the next time you read or hear media reports or those rare occasions when politicians talk about (male) violence against women, you listen very carefully to the language used. Does the report mention the gender of the perpetrator, and if not, why not? Does the report focus primarily on the female victim rather than the male criminal, and if so, why? Listen to or read carefully any media reports wherein the culprit is female. Does the report within the first sentence mention her gender, and if so, why? If the perpetrators were both female and male does the media primarily focus on the female accused? Just one recent example: when reporting the on-going case of Meredith Kercher, a young woman who was brutally murdered whilst living in Italy, the media hardly alluded to the two male suspects involved in this case. Instead, the sole focus was on the female suspect, rendering the two men gratefully invisible. One has to ask, why?

Phrases such as "stop violence against women" must be changed to "stop male violence against women". Likewise it is not "xxx numbers of women were raped" but rather "men raped xxx numbers of women" Instead of saying "xxx numbers of women were subjected to domestic violence" we must change these passive sentences to "in 2006 male husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends and ex-boyfriends committed acts of physical and sexual violence against xxxx numbers of female partners". Given the fact that the culprits are responsible for their crimes, not the victims, they must be the grammatical subject of such sentences. Focusing on the female victims reinforces victim-blaming attitudes and deflects accountability away from the male perpetrators.

About the author

Jennifer Drew

Jennifer actively refuses to use gender-neutral terms because this conveniently hides male accountability

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