Domestic violence or domestic abuse? Why terminology matters

Domestic violence or domestic abuse? Why terminology matters

Language is important.  Words mean things and using the right word sends a message, which is why we need to make sure we use the right terminology.  We are told that we should be honest with our children and tell them the proper names of our body parts, making them feel more self-confident and to enhance body image.

When we talk about domestic violence, it’s important that we also look at the language and that’s why I advocate changing the terminology to domestic abuse.  On my recent Churchill Fellowship, I studied support services for domestic violence victims from the Indian Subcontinent and whilst talking to police, service providers and victims in the UK, Canada and the US, everyone spoke about domestic abuse.

I questioned the police in the UK about this, and they said they changed the language because women were assuming that unless he hits me (violence) they haven’t been abused.  From that moment on, I started to use the word domestic abuse, and now I’m on a crusade to make everyone in the country refer to it as the same.

While the domestic violence laws in Australia recognise many forms of abuse, including financial, emotional, sexual and spiritual, they lose their affect when we generically call it domestic violence.

And there are many women from conservative and migrant communities who believe a male partner who yells all the time is just letting off steam, or who doesn’t give money for household expenses is being a good money manager. In effect, as a result of their conditioning, they refuse to question this behaviour.

If we call it abuse, like we do with elder abuse and child abuse, we have a much wider section of the population that soon understands that it’s more than physical violence that allows them to recognise their plight and to act.

Once we refer to it as domestic abuse, we can easily link in all the other forms of abuse, including coercive control which highlights a pattern of behaviour rather than the isolated or rare (if at all) incidence of violence.

Many women that we support, talk about leaving relationships and they assure me there has been no domestic violence – “he’s never laid a hand on me” – but on deeper questioning and reflection, realise they have been abused for many years, in ways that have been more subtle but just as damaging and potent.

Just as telling kids about their body parts is important, talking to the community about domestic abuse allows victims to understand the many ways they can be abused, (without violence) and the sooner we have victims recognise caustic behaviour and try to work out a plan to get themselves out of the situation, the better for our communities.

Many women have a real vested interest in this, and will suggest that this behaviour is normal. Phrases like: “I tune out”, “that’s just him” or “in our community, the man is in charge” or even the horrid “that’s God’s plan.” Any number of lines that excuse or ignore the controlling and abusive attitudes of the perpetrator.

So let’s change the language and call it what it is – domestic abuse, and stop sending a message to all that it’s only a serious issue when there has been physical violence.


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