Invisible Violence: The Effects of Sexist Language

How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s just a word, it doesn’t matter.”? Typically, this is said in defense of saying something that might be considered offensive. For a lot of people the idea of certain words being trivial and insignificant might make perfect sense. However, the fact that we find it difficult to change the way we talk can actually be the biggest indicator of just how significant the words we use are and how they can shape our world.

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As explained by sociologist Sherryl Kleinman in her article “Why Sexist Language Matters”, we live in a society that normalizes and condones sexist language to such a degree that it becomes completely invisible to us. The word ‘man’ is used to refer to all of humanity, a female mail carrier will be given the title of mailman, and groups of girls will respond if you address them with, “Hey you guys!”. This all boils down to male generics becoming the basis of our English language, and women being slowly removed from our everyday speech.

When ‘man’ becomes the anchor in our language it consistently reinforces the message that there is a higher-status gender, one that is always assumed to exist in our speech. Therefore, it makes women invisible because they simply do not exist in the language anymore. This then poses a threat because by making a group invisible it ultimately makes them easier to oppress. It’s sexist and it needs to end. But what happens when sexist language becomes violent language?

When we describe women specifically, the words we use are often unknowingly violent and aggressive. Words like “bombshell”, “knockout”, and “stunning” are all terms that are used to refer to women, more specifically the female body. While they are meant to be flattering ways of describing someone, they are inherently violent terms. They construct a woman’s sexuality as if it is a weapon or an assault on someone else. This is just one example of an invisible form of violence within our language that we don’t realize because of how normalized it has become for us.

It’s no coincidence that violent language is used to refer to a woman’s sexuality. Feminist author Timothy Beneke once asked, “Ever notice how the words we use to describe women’s beauty — bombshell, knockout, stunning, femme fatale — are words that connote violence and injury to men?”. When we talk about and describe women and their bodies in such violent terms, it becomes easier to justify violence that is done against them. Assault becomes a reaction, instead of a crime, and men’s violence against woman is treated like a natural response because, “she started it”.

The truth is that words matter. They have weight to them. They are the tools that we use to construct the world around us and create our own realities. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the words we use. Sexist language is all around us. Sexist language is violent language. And violent language condones violent actions.

9 thoughts on “Invisible Violence: The Effects of Sexist Language

  1. Oh man…I think you’re right about this! See what I did there? 😛 I completely agree with your post and think that changing our language is the first step to social change. Many orientation programs at universities are implementing policies to refer to incoming students as “first year” students rather than “freshmen.” While this may seem trivial and many students may not understand the meaning of this policy, it is an amazing step in the right direction. In order to truly achieve equality, we must start from the bottom! Thanks for posting about this issue 🙂

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    1. Yes, I love that orientation programs are starting to use gender inclusive language! I think it definitely makes for a much more welcoming environment for all students involved and starts their college experience in a great way!

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  2. I think it is so interesting that you point out the Timothy Beneke quote. I have never even realized that the beauty language that is used alludes to violence. Thank you for pointing this out!

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    1. I know it’s crazy how normal these things can seem until we take a closer look! It’s definitely worth becoming aware of though, once you realize the meaning behind our language it becomes a lot easier to be more aware of how we speak. Thanks for reading! 🙂

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  3. This is such a great reminder that our words have meaning– even if we don’t necessarily think about it. It’s kind of astonishing how many violent terms are used to describe women. Thanks for sharing this perspective, I’m definitely going to be more conscious of how I talk about women.

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  5. A word’s connotation carries an important effect. Words that objectify women or suggest violence should be condemned.
    I agree with you on the word bombshell. It seems to suggest that the woman is like a ‘bomb’, clearly objectifying women. The word ‘bomb’ also seems to have a negative connotation.
    I can’t say much about the word knockout because I’ve rarely heard of it. But I guess that it suggests that a woman is so beautiful that she literally knocks everyone out with her beauty. The author should make it clear why this is so bad.
    Regarding ‘stunning’ however, it clearly suggests that a woman is so beautiful, it leaves everyone stunned. I don’t see why this is bad or suggests violence in any way. The author says that it suggests violence against men, but I don’t see how it is suggestive of violence.
    I fully agree with the gist of the article. However, I think the examples are too Politically correct. I would also have loved to see a logical/scientific connection between how language suggestive of violence against men can trigger actual revenge violence from the other side. I would agree with the reasoning that calling women bombshell would objectify them and thus encourage such behaviour from me. But I cannot understand how bombshell or knockout can suggest violence against men per se, or at least to the degree that it encourages a revenge from them.
    I like the article and its a encouraging work from the author. But I’d definitely love to see more rigorous reasoning and proper examples. Otherwise it just confuses people. The confusion created can distract people from the gist and can cause people who actually need to understand this, to close their ears. That is what I worry about. Sorry for the criticism, but this is in good faith. These issues matter.

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    1. Error Correction, line 19: “I would agree with the reasoning that calling women bombshell would objectify them and thus encourage such behavior from men* “

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