For the past two weeks, I’ve heard candidates and pundits dismiss talk of sexual assault as “just words.”
I immediately hear the voices of the thousands of survivors of sexual and domestic violence I’ve worked with over the years. Thousands of women have sat across from me, reeling sometimes from years of abuse, sometimes from a single incident, but almost all telling me the same story—physical scars heal, it’s the words that stick with you.
In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we need to address the damaging—and healing—power words can carry.
Words bring people to counseling. Words bring people to shelter. Words keep people from going to work, or to church, or to the grocery store. Survivors tell me the same thing.
“They’re just words. So why am I so afraid? Why am I in so much pain? Why can’t I get over it?”
Because words matter
Words tell us who is most likely to be killed so we can make decisions about who to bring in to emergency shelter. Prior threats to kill are one of the strongest risk factors consistently linked to homicide.
Words that are an accurate predictor of future behavior. Words that for thousands of victims of domestic violence can mean the difference between life and death. Because words matter.
Words are the difference between sex and rape. Sex without “yes” is a third degree felony. It’s just one word, but it’s a tremendously important one. Because words matter.
Words are weapons
Words, in the hands of abusers, are weapons. Words are the tools of power and control. Emotional abuse, minimizing, denying, blaming, threats and intimidation all rely on words to gain power and control over a victim. In fact, words are a more commonly used weapon in domestic violence relationships than fists, guns, and knives ever could be.
Tell her she’s worthless. Tell her she deserves it. Tell her nobody will ever believe her. Tell her she’s crazy, or stupid, or weak. Tell her what you’ll do to her if she tells anyone. Tell her it’s her fault. And if she breaks free? Tell everyone else that she’s crazy, or a slut, or jealous. Tell the judge, or the jury, or the public the same thing. When words make the difference between guilty and innocent, tell them it’s “just words.” These are the words—and the weapons—of domestic violence. Because words matter.
Words can also heal
As much as words have the power to hurt, they also have the power to heal. I’m a trauma therapist and an advocate. Words are the tools I use to turn pain and suffering into growth and healing. Words are the tools I use to give a voice to the survivors who have been silenced by years of abuse and a system that doesn’t value or respond to their needs. Words are the tools I use to speak up for victims who have been killed so we can make the system more responsive to the next victim, so their deaths are not in vain. Words are how we change the system, indeed the world. Because words matter.
Words, like any other weapon, can be used to hurt or to protect. Guns in the hands of protectors keep us safe. Guns in the hands of abusers mean someone is likely to die—maybe the partner, maybe the police officer who responds to help, and maybe innocent members of the public. When abusers have guns, we are all at higher risk. It’s the same with words. If we give power to the folks who use words as weapons to hurt, to degrade, to objectify, to demean, and to control, we are all in more danger.
But when we give power to the folks who use words to heal, we are all safer and healthier for it. Because words matter.
What to do
When I have to explain bad things to my children, I borrow a lesson from Mr. Rogers and tell them to look for the helpers. When someone is hurting other people, look for the folks who are making it better. We often focus on the helpers that come with sirens—paramedics, firefighters, and police officers.
I’m finding myself needing to explain more and more how to respond to people hurting each other with words. My advice: look for the hotline worker, ready to take your words seriously and help you get to safety. Look for the advocate and the nurse, who believe you when you say you’ve been raped. Look for the counselor, ready to talk and, more importantly, ready to listen.
Look for the good men of the world willing to step up and speak up when they see other men using words to hurt. Look for the leaders who understand the impact of their words. Because words are not “just words.” They matter, and so do the people they hurt.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of abuse, find a helper by calling SAFE’s hotline at 512.267.7233.