Feminist Language

Feminists want to control your language; feminists want to tell you how to talk. – George Carlin

I used to proudly identify as a feminist. But that was back when I still believed that feminism was about women empowering themselves as a category of individuals, and women supporting women. In recent years, I have become somewhat disillusioned. In recent weeks, I’ve had my disillusionment validated in a variety of ways. The most recent, and perhaps final blow came when I read this post and subsequent comments at Feministe.

The discussion is about asking why victims of domestic violence stay – a question which many people seem to think of as victim-blaming/shaming. And to some people, intent, context and/or tone are completely irrelevant. If you say the words, you are blaming the victim and enabling abusers. End of story. Get your language right.

That’s not the worst of it: once you get the language wrong, there is no turning back. No explanation or apology is sufficient, and anyone who attempts to reach out to you in an attempt to create an atmosphere of safety and understanding is quickly bullied into silence with implicit threats of also being branded as an abuser-enabling victim-blamer. And who is willing to pay the eternal price for that?

Well, I guess I am. As a survivor of domestic violence myself, I’m here to say, without apology, that asking why victims of domestic violence stay is not an inherently harmful question. Context, tone and intent are completely relevant, and that doesn’t change just because feminists say so.

A few people have suggested rephrasing the question. I say let those people rephrase it. There’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s what they need to do for themselves. But if they can rephrase my question in a way that they find more appropriate or acceptable, without actually changing the question, then apparently they understood my intent to begin with.

So why all the semantics? As you probably guessed, I have a few thoughts on that as well.

Modern feminists strike me as people who (seem to) have an answer for everything. If everyone would just do as they say, we’d all be better off and the world would be a better place. Welcome to the grand illusion!

My perspective, is that feminists typically blacklist questions that they don’t have answers to. Why do victims of domestic violence stay? There isn’t a nice, neat, blanket response to that. Domestic violence crosses every border imaginable. It is not restricted to race, age, economic status, social status, level of education, (dis)ability, religion, sexual orientation, gender, genetics, blood type, name, rank or serial number. Domestic violence is an equal opportunity social problem. This being the case, how can we possibly answer the question of why? There doesn’t seem to be an answer at the moment.

Feminists can’t fix it, and so they quell the question.

Language control is directly related to thought control. If feminists (or anyone else) can control our language, they can control how our thoughts are perceived by others. This also allows them to control the dialogue which, in turn, helps create the illusion that they have all the answers, simply by eliminating some of the questions. They stifle the flow of discussion and exchange of ideas, under the guise of supporting women and minorities, and more specifically to this topic, victims of domestic violence.

But how do they get otherwise intelligent, inquisitive people to go along with this?

Shame and fear of exclusion:

You will say what I tell you to say and how I tell you to say it, and if you screw it up, you are no longer worthy of my attention, support, affection or whatever I may have been offering in exchange for your unquestioned compliance to my demands. And once you’ve said it wrong (screwed it up), you can never be fully redeemed. You cannot make amends. It is over for you. You are no longer one of us. You will spend the rest of your life groveling or begone.

I wonder how many victims and survivors of domestic abuse can tell you where they’ve heard that kind of shit before?

Under the above linked post, one person comments:

Some of the “explanations” on this thread for why people are asking victim-blaming questions about why a woman stays, no matter your intentions, are not helping. We don’t allow these questions when talking about rape or other forms of abuse, so why do we fall into that trap when talking about DV?

This is circular reasoning which presupposes that asking why victims of domestic violence stay is the same thing as asking why they let it happen or what they did to cause it – more redefining of language.

The same person goes on to say that, rather than asking why victims of domestic violence stay, we should be asking, “What makes people treat others in this way?” I see no reason that we can’t ask both.

She closes with this:

I can’t remove myself from my experiences but I won’t apologize for being “too sensitive” when abuse has been my reality and is a part of my past. I really don’t care what your intentions are in trying to be helpful when asking questions about what I could have done to not get myself into an abusive situation…it’s still victim-blaming.

No-one has to apologize for their feelings. I can’t help wondering, though, how much these particular feelings might be a direct result of being told over and over again that any variation of the question, why did she stay?, is really an accusation of somehow being responsible for the abuse.

Part of the danger of redefining and restricting language in this context is that it has the potential to convince victims and survivors that they’re being blamed for their own abuse even when they’re not. As I’ve already stated, intent is completely relevant in determining whether or not someone is being blamed or accused of something.

I was in an abusive relationship with an extremely jealous man. Any time he asked me where I had been or what I had done that day, the question was a poorly disguised accusation that I had done something wrong. Does that make the question inherently accusatory? Of course it doesn’t. It can also be a question of genuine interest or curiosity. Intent is what makes it one or the other. Intent matters, whether people accept it or not.

But again, the above quoted comment presupposed that the intent is always one of accusation; one of blame.

The unbending determination to perceive things in this way, creates a perpetual state of self-victimization, in my opinion. I spent more than three decades as a victim of abuse. I will not spend the rest of my life as a victim of language, or as a hostage to those who would like to control it for everyone else.

All this said, I know that victim-blaming is a very real phenomenon that further victimizes the abused. Victim-blamers exist, no doubt about it. But that does not mean that there is one hiding behind every bush and I, for one, will not fall into the trap of looking over my shoulder and taking immediate offense to every perceived slight. As I said in another post, PTSD definitely affects my world view, but I refuse to let it become my world view.

Language cannot be, in and of itself, abusive. Only malicious intent can make it so.

Modern feminism seems more about discussing (in language dictated by the various feminist factions) theory and ideology that claims to empower and support women, and less about actually doing so. It has come to resemble far too closely the same kind of controlling, oppressive behavior that feminists claim to fight against.

I realize that speaking so openly about this will most likely result in my exile from Feministe and possibly other online feminist communities as well. I accept that. This needed to be said. The irony is that in shunning me, they will simultaneously validate every word I have said. But either way, language wins. And I am not a victim.

25 responses to “Feminist Language

  • Mike

    It’s all very Orwellian; as I said to you on the phone, it’s reminiscent of Newspeak – if you control how people can express themselves, you control what they express and ultimately how they think. Whether that’s by limiting people’s vocabulary and thus thoughts by remaking the language completely or by having a gallery of howler monkeys, the effect is the same.

    Ultimately, I think it comes down to an attitude of the ends justifying the means. If your cause (and thus end) is just, that means whatever you do in achieving it must also be just, goes the thinking. I don’t think I need to remind anyone how much suffering this kind of consequentialist thinking has resulted in.

  • Lottie

    Thank you Michael. The Orwellian comparison is spot on. Wish I had thought of that.

    I don’t think I need to remind anyone how much suffering this kind of consequentialist thinking has resulted in.

    No reminder needed. Too bad so many people are willing to sell out in this way. It seems to do more to undermine their cause than to promote it. But that might just be my internalized misogyny speaking. ::snort::

    Right, we’re off to have lunch at McDonald’s now. 😉

  • Mary (MPJ)

    Lottie, interesting post. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about our public dialog after blogging about Alex Barton, the kindergartener who was voted out of his class. I’m finding that there is just not a lot of nuance in the way that complex interpersonal situations are discussed.

    I know that I had a hard time when I found out about my husband’s addiction with words like “enabling” and “codependent,” because that did seem like blaming the victim (me) for his behavior and problems. It took a long time for me to see that I did have problems I needed to address that led me to be with him, even if I was not responsible for his actions. That’s a difficult distinction to make, and that’s probably where the issues with domestic violence and feminist language come from.

  • Lottie

    Thanks for commenting, Mary. You make some interesting points as well and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and your personal experiences. I know how difficult it can be.

    I’m really sad at the moment. I feel sort of… in limbo. I considered myself a feminist for most of my life (I’m forty-one) and now I’m not so sure that I even know I what the word means anymore. If what I’ve been seeing lately (and it’s not just this) is any indication, I don’t think I want to be associated with it.

    Sorry to dump on you. I’m just having a hard time with it all. Thanks again for commenting. Stop by any time.

  • jesurgislac

    Modern feminism seems more about discussing (in language dictated by the various feminist factions) theory and ideology that claims to empower and support women, and less about actually doing so.

    Good grief, what a lot of bloody nonsense!

    Feminism – the longest, quietest, least violent, most successful revolution the world has ever seen – is the movement responsible for changing domestic violence from something that was taken for granted as a husband’s legal right, to a crime that can be prosecuted. Individual feminists, and collective feminist groups, were responsible for setting up domestic violence support groups, shelters, phone lines, activism. If you know anything about the history of domestic violence and the role of modern feminism, you know that.

    Yet you complain because, on a feminist blog, a bunch of wordy feminists spend a long time discussing the question “Why did you stay?” and claim that this blog post somehow goes to prove that feminism is all about the “theory and ideology that claims to empower and support women, and less about actually doing so”.

  • Lottie

    I stated that in recent years I have become disillusioned. I only started reading feminist blogs a few months ago, so my thoughts are not based solely on this one discussion. It only served as an example of the kind of thinking that has contributed to my disillusionment – the “final blow” I mentioned in the beginning.

    I am perfectly aware of the accomplishments of the feminist groups and individuals. Thank you for specifying some of them here.

    Now, perhaps you can take the advice you gave tree6fan and go talk to the people who are spreading the ‘hate’ instead of those who have been on the receiving end of it. Not that you’re unwelcome here… I hope you understand my point.

  • Feministe » Linguistics And Meaning Of “Why Did She Stay?”

    […] response to Feministe: Why did she stay? which I commented on here there is a post Lottie Rambles on: Feminist language, where Lottie writes: My perspective, is that feminists typically blacklist questions that they […]

  • jesurgislac

    I stated that in recent years I have become disillusioned. I only started reading feminist blogs a few months ago, so my thoughts are not based solely on this one discussion.

    Sorry: I over-simplified. So, have these organizations all closed down now, that you assert that in recent years feminists aren’t doing any of that any more?

    and go talk to the people who are spreading the ‘hate’

    I just did. You just posted a hateful comment about feminism, feminists, and the feminst movement, so I responded to it. There are all sorts of different ways of “spreading the hate”, and your way is one of them.

    Not that you’re unwelcome here…

    Thanks for making that clear.

  • Lottie

    So it’s hateful to call hate “hate”?

    But I do understand your other points. I will definitely give it some more thought.

  • Jodi

    I don’t think feminists are “quelling” any questions. It’s not a wrong thing to stop asking “Why did she stay?” and start asking, “Why do people think it’s OK to beat up their {own}partners?” And also, “Why are so many of the people who beat up their partners men?” The person who gets left out of the equation when people talk about violence is the person who committed the violence. Just like rapists seem to get left out of rape (e.g., “She was raped.” Not, “a man raped her”).

  • judgesnineteen

    I totally agree with your point about this particular question – “Why did she stay?” doesn’t have to imply that she did something wrong or deserved abuse, because the answer could be given in terms of the victim or in terms of the victim’s circumstances, and we don’t know which one we’ll get. But since I’m into linguistics, I’m curious how far you’re willing to take this statement:

    Language cannot be, in and of itself, abusive. Only malicious intent can make it so.

    Is the n-word ok if you don’t have malicious intent? Do you think language, like using “he” and “man” to mean people in general, can affect the way people think about the normativity of men? Is it ok to call a group by a label that they disprefer if you don’t think that label sounds offensive? Just wondering, I don’t really have an answer.

  • Lottie


    We don’t have to stop asking one in order to ask the others. They’re not mutually exclusive. And I do not agree that the question excludes the abuser from the equation.


    You have asked some very good questions! I’ll share my thoughts on the last one first:

    If you refer to a group (or individual) in a way that they do not wish to be referred to, I don’t see how the intent can be anything but malicious. That pretty much covers the n-word as well (for the record I hate the word myself and have no use for people who use it).

    As far as using “he” and “man” to refer to people in general, personally I flip back and forth between using “he” and “she” depending on the context and who I’m talking about. I’m not really bothered much by it either way, to be honest. I would definitely consider who I was talking to or about and try to honor their preferences.

    Of course, these are just my personal thoughts. I certainly don’t have all the answers.

    Thanks for commenting, both of you.

  • ripley

    I think your post is interesting, and I think I get what you are saying. I’m not sure I agree.. I think you can turn the answer to “why did she stay” into something larger. But I think it’s worth asking why that response is so common, while asking about the abuser’s choices is much less common.

    But beyond that, I am concerned about the discussion of intent and the argument that feminists are blacklisting certain questions. I didn’t read it that way at all. I see that some feminist writers are questioning the most common response to stories of abuse, and suggesting that it has effects that are antifeminist and normalize abusive situations. This doesn’t mean that people who ask that intend to do it.

    It really goes back to your statement that “intent” is what matters. I don’t think “intent” matters. EFFECT matters. This is why feminist critique of language (and other critiques of language) are so important.

    What keeps women down –what maintains any hierarchy, in fact, is that intent actually doesn’t matter – you can participate in hierarchichal and exclusive behavior without knowing it. “but I didn’t MEAN it that way” is not a defense for an attitude that maintains dominance.

    I think when you talk about the “n-word” you are substituting malicious intent for negative effect. In fact, I have met people who are extremely ignorant (and elderly – from another era, and without much personal interaction with people of color), who have used racial slurs without intent to be malicious. but that doesn’t mean the effect is not perpetuating racism.

    or it’s kind of like the “fatherly” sort of sexism – the protective kind, that doesn’t respect women by assuming they can’t stand on their own. Or what about the “it’s just a compliment” defense when someone whistles at you on the street? Even if the whistler means it in a complimentary fashion, it perpetuates the attitude that women’s bodies are naturally to be the object of public evaluation.

    All of these things don’t require malicious intent, they just require that you go along with the status quo. So criticizing language use is what highlights all the ways that “intent” and effect are separated.

    I didn’t read the discussion as a blacklist, but instead as questioning why a particular response to stories of abuse is so common, and suggesting some ways that response plays into sexism.

  • Lottie

    I don’t think “intent” matters. EFFECT matters.

    Like I said in my post, I wonder how much the effect (victims feeling blamed) is a direct result of us saying over and over again that any variation of why did she stay? is an accusation of blame.

    Regarding blacklisting questions, this is only one instance. I will soon be writing a post in which I will provide other examples of framing the discussion in their own favor or in favor of their arguments by dictating what people can and cannot say and what can and cannot be introduced into a discussion.

    But that will have to wait. This has been quite draining, and I need a break from it.

    Thank you for your comments. You’ve made some very good points and it’s all excellent food for thought.

  • Q Grrl


    When stories about DV arise the question is never “why did he beat her?” It’s almost always “why did she stay” – with the implication that by her staying, she has consented to future abuse. This is perhaps the biggest reason that feminists do not entertain the “why did she stay” question as a serious and honest inquiry. It’s rubbernecking of an intellectual sort.

    Also, if you don’t like feminism so much, why do *you* stay (i.e., keep reading feminist blogs)?

  • Lottie

    Or do we assume that it’s “almost always” the implication? I’d venture a guess that none of us have ever sat down for a chat with “almost all” people who have ever asked the question.

    Also, if you don’t like feminism so much, why do *you* stay (i.e., keep reading feminist blogs)?

    Way to go! You just blew any credibility you may have had right there.

    People who are truly committed to something don’t abandon it just because it appears to be getting off course. I believe that members of any group have a responsibility to call out other members, or the group as a whole, when they believe that is happening.

    Being disillusioned is not the same as “not liking it so much” to the point of giving up completely. If every feminist who had become frustrated along the way just threw in the towel, we couldn’t possibly have made the strides we’ve made. And that progress wasn’t made by a bunch of sycophants and yes-women who went along with everything they were told, even by other feminists.

    We have a responsibility to challenge each other, not stroke each other’s egos. That’s why I stay. Why do you?

  • Mike

    Also, if you don’t like feminism so much, why do *you* stay (i.e., keep reading feminist blogs)?

    Well, Q Grrl, I’ve seen you complaining about society in general around Alas a time or two. If you think it sucks so much, why aren’t you living in a cave somewhere?

  • Lottie

    That’s the funniest damn thing I’ve seen in a few days. I sure did need the laugh.

    Thanks, Gorgeous. Oops! I objectified you. Oh wait… it’s OK because you’re a dude.

  • Selena

    Lottie, I hope I don’t offend you, but you’re on my heart and I’m praying for you. 🙂

    It’s good to take breaks and surround yourself with people who “get you.” It’s hurtful when your intentions and essence get unfairly attacked.

    Sending warm thoughts your way! 🙂

  • Lottie

    No offense taken at all, Selena. Thank you for caring.

    I’m really taking that break now. I had to check email for work and couldn’t resist taking a peek. I’m really going this time. lol

    Thanks again. Your comment marks a nice place for wrapping this up for now. 😀

  • Q Grrl

    It wasn’t a serious question, really. It was a ridiculous question, no? That was my point.

  • Mike

    I agree, it was ridiculous. “Like it or leave it” is not a credible argument, after all; I’m glad you realise that.

  • Lottie

    Backpedaling is difficult to do gracefully, isn’t it?

  • No Staying Power « Rambling On

    […] for you. You are no longer one of us. You will spend the rest of your life groveling or begone. Feminist Language Posted in Education, Feminism, Relationships, Society | Tags: abuse, aftermath, domestic abuse, […]

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