Helping Survivors Can Be as Simple as Changing the Way We Speak


By: Bree Belair & Lily Waddell

The way we speak and even the way we form our sentences can have a significant, lasting impact on survivors. The way we speak also reflects societal attitudes that condone abuse and allow it happen. How we talk about domestic violence speaks volumes to what we believe and how we frame the problem. How we frame the problem informs how we fix it, and in order to stop domestic violence we need to hold the people perpetrating the violence accountable. One avenue by which we can stop domestic violence is through our language choices, so that they do not perpetuate victim blaming.

What is Victim Blaming?

Victim blaming is the tendency to hold someone responsible for their own victimization, instead of the perpetrator. In relation to domestic violence, victim blaming places the responsibility for the abuse on the survivor instead of the abuser. Blaming domestic violence survivors is unacceptable for a couple reasons. First, victim blaming attitudes in society make it difficult for survivors to seek help and report the abuse they’re experiencing because survivors often fear experiencing additional isolation and shame. Additionally, victim blaming reinforces what abusers already tell their victims – that it’s the victim’s fault that they are being abused. This false complicity allows abusers to continue perpetrating domestic abuse. The abuser’s lack of accountability is bolstered by victim blaming myths.

Victim Blaming Myths

Victim blaming can manifest itself in many ways, some more subtle than others. Let’s examine some common questions and statements that embody victim blaming attitudes and also why they are harmful.

“They must have done something to provoke the abuse.”

People who use abusive tactics make a conscious decision to behave the way they do. The abuser has the choice to separate from the survivor or talk things out. Instead, they make a conscious choice to not only stay in the relationship but to use abuse to control and intimidate their partner. Instead of asking what the victim did to provoke the abuser, a better question is why did the abuser chose to respond with violence, manipulation, and/or other abusive tactics instead of leaving or talking things out?

“Why wouldn’t they just leave the abuser?”

Survivors often attempt to leave their abuser but are prevented from doing so because of economic dependence, lack of affordable or safe housing options, lack of support from the criminal justice system, social isolation, and fear of escalated violence. Survivors’ concerns for their safety are in fact founded. Research demonstrates that the most dangerous time for a victim is when they leave their abuser, with a 75% increase in violence upon separation. Additionally, 75% of domestic violence-related homicides occur upon separation. So instead of asking why the victim doesn’t leave, ask why does the abuser believe they have the right to control and intimidate their partner?

“He just has anger management problems”

Domestic violence is not caused by anger management issues. If this were true, abusers would be hitting their bosses and coworkers along with their partners. Instead, many abusers admit to calmly planning their abuse, Abusers take care to only display abusive behaviors in private and only cause physical harm to places on the survivors’ body hidden by clothes or hair. Anger management classes cannot teach abusers to control their behavior because abusers are already in control of their actions. So instead remember, abuse is not rooted in anger; it is rooted in the abuser’s belief that they have the right to control their partner.

“He only abuses her when he’s drunk” / “He struggles with mental illness”

Although substance use and domestic abuse often co-occur, their relationship is not causal in nature. Substance use disorders and domestic violence are instead independent problems that often occur simultaneously. Neither alcohol nor drugs creates a belief system in which an abuser thinks they have the right to control and intimidate their partner. Likewise, mental illness and abuse do not have a causal relationship. Some abusers do struggle with their mental illness, but studies have shown that rates of mental illness are no higher in abusers than in the general population. Many people with mental illness are not abusers, and many abusers are not mentally ill.

It’s important to recognize that even the most well-meaning people can unintentionally contribute to victim blaming attitudes. We do not want to believe that horrible things like abuse could happen to us. Victim blaming is a misguided form of self-preservation – people often use victim-blaming as a way to distance themselves from victims, to say, “Well I am not like this victim because I would have done x, y, and z differently, so abuse would never happen to me.” Unfortunately, this mindset is entirely false and is harmful to survivors of abuse. Abuse can happen to anyone, and victim blaming is a part of the problem.

How Every Day Phrasing Hurts Survivors

In our culture, it is very common to hear unaccountable language. Unaccountable language is the way we form our sentences so that the focus is on the survivor, rather than the abuser who is choosing to control their partner. Unaccountable language normalizes and makes light of violence. It shifts focus away from what we should really be talking about – why does someone believe they have the right to abuse their partner?

Examples of Unaccountable Language

“An abusive relationship”

We know that the relationship is not what is abusing the survivor. Rather, it is the abuser who is choosing to exert power and control over their partner. Focusing on the relationship shifts the attention away from the abuser, and shifts the blame on to the survivor.

“They were abused. They are a victim.”

The abuser has become completely invisible. Now we are only talking about the survivor, and in fact their very identity has become intertwined with the abuse someone chose to inflict on them.

How to Use Accountable Language

We want to talk about who did what to whom and the impact. Accountable language makes it clear that people who abuse their partners are responsible for their actions. We need to change the way we speak about domestic violence to show that the problem we need to fix is the abuser’s actions, and their belief that they have the right to control and scare their partner. Holding the abuser accountable shows that you understand it is not the survivor’s fault, nor is it their problem to fix.

It may feel like our everyday language choices do not make a difference, but every time we choose language that blames the victim or otherwise doesn’t hold the abuser accountable, we reinforce a system that allows abusers to keep on abusing without having to take responsibility for their actions. Choosing language carefully when discussing domestic violence is an important step that everyone in the community should take to create a culture that places blame where it belongs – on the abuser alone.

Partners for Peace incorporates accountable language in every facet of what our organization does. From our presentations, social media posts, programming, community-based campaigns, and more, we seek to promote awareness about why such language is important. We believe this awareness is critical in promoting a culture in which survivors’ voices are lifted and abusers are held accountable for their actions. Doing so helps us build a better tomorrow, today.