Using Language to Abuse

Written by Rev. Loey Powell

As a kid, I learned the sing-songy jingle of, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.”  I sang it back to boys who taunted me and my friends, empowered by its disarming message.  As an adult, I learned that names and words can cause much greater harm than physical threats; names and words can actually be cause for prosecution in hate crime cases when people of color or those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are verbally abused. 

But I am still amazed and appalled that words and names which demean women and girls do not constitute verbal abuse in the same way – the “b” word and “ho” are heard on prime time television shows and family hour shows with great regularity.  Other belittling names and words characterize women as stupid or obsessed only with their looks or weight or with getting a date.  Such names and words fill the airwaves on the radio and even appear on public advertising bulletin boards.  Video games are filled with distorted images of women who become objects of conquest for the player.

As you conscientiously avoid consuming violence in the media, pay attention as well to how women and girls are portrayed in magazines, on billboards, in the songs you love to listen to, on the TV shows you watch or movies you plan to see.  Compile a list of the words used to describe women and girls.  While what you watch, see or hear may not be overtly violent in a shoot-em-up kind of way, could distorted images of women possibly contribute to a culture that could lead to – or justify in some people’s minds – actual physical violence against women?

Women are the primary targets of most of that kind of violence, particularly domestic violence.  How can we cultivate through our words a society that truly values women and girls as much as it does men and boys?  Are you willing to challenge your friends, or boss, or co-workers, or family members who use demeaning and pejorative names and words for girls and women?  Can you raise awareness in your children’s schools about words and name-calling that diminishes not just the target of those names but also the one who speaks them?  Can you hold your local media accountable for the kind of programming they offer?

We are all created in the image of God, the Holy One whose name is many and whose attributes are all good and gracious.  May we be so with each other.