Ninety percent of survivors are women and 99% of perpetrators are male. This is a statistic one could use to explain why one might use the female pronoun to describe a survivor or a male pronoun to describe a perpetrator. This statistic also highlights the gendered aspect of sexual violence. However, this statistic often covers up the stories of the other 10%. Adherence to the idea of sexual violence as being gendered, as identified by this statistic, dangerously excludes the experiences of those who do not conform to a gender dichotomy. This discussion is brought up on Feministing in the article, “The dangers of a gender essentialist approach to sexual violence." The article explains the dangerous effects of using binary language that excludes many people and perpetuates a narrow-minded thinking of sexual violence.
It also presents an underlying difficulty. One needs to remember that sexual violence is a gender-based crime while realizing that genderless language to describe sexual violence has the potential to promote change in our society on many levels. One example of where more conscious use of language could improve thinking would be in the realm of decreasing stigma or misunderstanding associated with those who do not conform to a gendered binary and its consequent translation to policy. Sexual violence should not pin a gender on the survivor or a perpetrator. A two-sided way of thinking about sexual violence perpetuates homogeneity and undermines the individual’s story. One way of gaining empowerment is through validation of an individual survivor’s story (something SAPAC and the NPA’s promote every fall!). As suggested in the article, one way to hold on to the recognition that sexual violence is a gendered crime is by looking at the deeper cultural aspects of it related to gender norms and masculinity. This is absolutely true. Change occurs by changing culture. The effects of hyper-masculinity are a component of culture worthy of examination.
On another note related to language, the article on Feministing went back and forth between using “survivor” and “victim.” This was surprising for me, because through my volunteering at SAPAC, survivor is the only term I use and hear. It has become so much a part of my thinking now, and here’s the reasoning why it is this way for me.
The link I’ve just given brings me to another point related to this whole idea of using language that promotes a gender binary. The article on SAPAC’s site says, “We, along with many other experts in the field, use the term “survivor” because it is a more empowering term. Because so much power is taken from a person when she or he is raped, the idea is to restore that sense of power.” Did you notice the use of “she or he”? This also represents a gender binary. English grammar rules would tell me everything is right in this sentence. However, I am so glad to have been given permission ( Contact Robin Queen, UM linguistics professor) to now use “they” instead of “he or she” or their instead of “him or her”, much to the dismay of my high school English teachers. This is one small step I am taking to be gender-inclusive in my language.