Words that hurt

Violence against women begins with sexist language

Violence against women stems from discrimination against women - something that is long-rooted in our society. But the concept of violence is extremely broad, and there are different types of violence. It's not just physical: words and expressions in our daily life - on the street, at home, at work, on social media - can have a devastating effect. From reinforcing prejudices to justifying aggressive behaviour, words have the power to severely damage women’s self-esteem.

All over the world, the first assault often comes in the form of language. By recognising this fact, it is possible to increase social awareness about the issue and, consequently, contribute to less violence. Language plays an important role in efforts to move towards a place where violence against women is no longer considered inevitable,” says Jennifer Dorman, a sociolinguistic specialist at Babbel.

Test first lesson of every course for free

Why does this matter?

Verbal violence can cause emotional trauma, both in the target and any witnesses to it. It can help to further spread prejudices, allow bullying and harassment, humiliation and aggressive attitudes. Even when it is not said directly, it has the power to influence negative and distorted perceptions of a specific woman or females in general.

Gender-based violence in words

In the workplace

Sexism in the workplace can detract from women's abilities and promote discrimination based on gender. Commonly used expressions range from those which suggest jobs are only suitable for men, to degrading a woman who is successful based on the specific characteristics of being female:

  • "She’s got balls"

  • "That’s a man’s job"

  • She must be on her period

  • "Who did you sleep with to get this job?"

Women as a possession

Expressions of love or flattery can also hide latent sexism, as some of these phrases also exercise psychological violence with the intention to have control over the other person:

  • "You are mine and no one else’s"

  • "You’re prettier when you don’t speak"

  • "I don’t want you to be with anyone else"

Degrading self-esteem

Humiliation and degradation is another way in which violence can be conveyed, with the point of destroying the strength and self-esteem necessary to fight back:

  • "No one is going to believe you"

  • "No one else will put up with you"

  • "Nobody cares what you have to say"

  • "I'm the only one who is going to take care of you"

Blaming the victim

Words can have a profound effect on placing the responsibility for the violence suffered on the victim, absolving the aggressor of their behaviour:

  • "You asked for it"

  • "What are you wearing?"

  • "Look what you made me do"

  • "She wanted it for being dressed like that"

Communicate non-violently in another language

Explore other Babbel articles on gender and language

Feminist Words: New Vocabulary To Empower Yourself

Have you ever experienced something sexist but didn’t have a word to describe it? Fear not, we have a list of feminist words to help convey your experiences so you can feel empowered.

Discover more

Writing The Woman: 4 Women Who Rewrote The World

In honour of International Women’s Day, Babbel editor Samuel Dowd reflects on four women whose startling, radical, and courageous writing has, sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly, changed the course of literature and society.

Discover more

By Women, For Women: Woman-Made Languages

Sure, it’s been said for centuries that “women have a language all their own,” but did you know that there are actually languages out there constructed by and for women to use? In honour of International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at two of these “woman-made” languages.

Discover more

Discover the data behind violence against women