Shifting the Blame in Gender-Motivated Violence

Anna Greer has a very thought-provoking piece in Wo! Magazine about the use of the passive voice in describing gender-based violence. She writes:


“One of the first things journalism students learn is to avoid the passive voice. So, you have to wonder why journalists are drawn to using passive voice when the subject of their article is male violence against women. What classically happens is that the actors in these stories are sidelined and we’re left with the women who get raped, sexually harassed, or beaten.”
“A recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald was a perfect example of passive voice subverting the object/subject relationship. ‘Don’t Want to Be Harassed? Stop Acting Like a Man’ read the headline. The article reported on a Canadian study which found that, in the workplace, men were more likely to sexually harass women who didn’t conform to traditional gender roles. In the process, it used passive voice to shift blame from the perpetrators of sexual harassment and placed it squarely on the shoulders of the victims.”
“The use of passive voice in articles such as this, subconsciously shapes the way people view violence against women. It is an insidious and unquestioned practice. In the passive voice version of the above story, men apparently don’t harass and intimidate women, women just run around getting themselves harassed. If active voice had been used, would the same conclusions be drawn? Would it have the same headline? No.”
“This is not merely an isolated incident or slip of the sub-editor’s metaphorical knife. It is a wide-spread practice - in news articles on the subject of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence - to have the perpetrators painted out of the picture, either partly or completely.
Positioning a male abuser as the actor in a news article on sexual assault isn’t accusing all men of being abusers, just as identifying women as victims doesn’t imply that all women have suffered from sexual harassment or intimidation in the workplace. But let’s be real here. Men are the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of violence against women — as they are the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of violence against men, for that matter. And using the passive voice in articles on gendered violence positions female victims as somehow the root of the problem. It shifts the responsibility and blame from the actor to the person on the receiving end of the abuse.”
“When women are identified as the victims of gender-motivated violence and intimidation, the perpetrators must be identified as the actors. The use of passive voice cloaks this reality. Let’s place the blame where it belongs — squarely on the shoulders of the abusers.”
Kudos to Greer for totally nailing it. We cannot hope to end gendered violence until we accurately report and name what is happening and like UK activist Jennifer Drew, Greer is absolutely right that we have to place the blame on the perpetrators, not the victims.
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