Gendered Language in Feminist Events: Some Thoughts

I always hesitate to critique the feminist movement. It isn’t because I worry about responses (I generally don’t care that much about negative reactions to things that I say), but because I am empathetic to many (if not most… if not all) of the goals of most contemporary feminist groups. However, there is a particular sticking point that I ran up against very recently that I feel someone needs to address publicly, even if only on a marginal blog in the corner of the internet.

Last night I was out at an event with a few friends of mine. The event, Take Back the Night, is dedicated to raising awareness about domestic violence and abuse. As I have a few friends who have, in the past and present, been responsible for organizing the event, I make sure to go out to support them; it is also something that is deeply important.
Raising consciousness about the issues themselves is important; so is offering a particular sort of environment to those who are coming who have dealt with abuse and violence in their own lives, an environment that is warm and compassionate, and also full of people, so that they don’t feel alone.
But there’s one caveat to this wonderful event: The language used by the speakers during the main program of the event is, without fail, heavily gendered.
The talks rest heavily on descriptions of (1) heterosexual relationships and (2) relationships in which the male is the abuser. Of course, as one can note, the vast majority of adult victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse are women. I have no problem with dredging up those statistics and taking a look at them. The concern is this:
It seems to me deeply hypocritical that an event which attempts to raise consciousness about domestic violence and, in doing so, create a space that is safe for individuals to talk about their past and present issues, would engage in gendered language that marginalizes men.
In all of the discussions of domestic violence and sexual assault during the main program, there was only one reference (a tangential point made by Officer Jennifer Curwick, a speaker from the University Police Department, about the event not being about “man bashing”) to cases in which men are the victims.
The keynote speaker at the event (Dr. Melissa Knight) rested her entire talk on cases of emotional abuse and control in relationships, relying exclusively on relationships in which the male is the abuser and, moveover, always explicitly reverting to the pronoun “he.” With all do respect to Officer Curwick, that is why male victims of domestic violence and sexual assault feel marginalized, even in a space like Take Back the Night, which is supposed to be a safe space; it’s also why so few men come forward to talk about being abused (though there were some who did, during the open mic portion of the night), because they feel that their case falls so far outside of the paradigm that they don’t feel like they count.
This issue is one that the feminist movement touches, periodically. Sometimes it handles the issue with honesty, genuinely acknowledging the problem and making an effort to be conscious of the gender-paradigm that we, ourselves, (I do consider myself a feminist, after all) have created. Sometimes it ignores the issue, or blows it off; when that happens, it is a failure, but one that has to be addressed, and discussed, in order to be fixed.
Overall, the event was a successful one. Any event that raises consciousness about issues, and puts forward resources for people who have been abused to get help for the emotional turmoil that always ensues, or to escape a current situation, is important, and should not be marginalized, whatever shortcomings it may have. That effort is so important that, regardless of my concerns about the implementation of the event, that I go out to support it every year. Even if all I am supplying is an additional body to make others feel safe and understood, that is sufficient.
But all I ask is that the gentle nudge of someone sympathetic to the ends of the event be acknowledged, in some form or fashion, in future events; the event is a success if it prevents even one case of domestic violence, if it leads to one survivor of sexual assault finding help and safety, if it helps even one person come to terms with the abuse in their past. Still, the nudge remains: perhaps it could be done in a way that truly acknowledges that there is more complexity to the gender dynamics of abuse relationships than simply the paradigm of “he” did this to “her.” Perhaps we would all be better for keeping the cases that fall outside of that paradigm, so often marginalized, in mind.
This was originally posted at Philosotroll, my website, but it seemed appropriate to post here at Feministing, as well. This is my first use of the community blogs, so I hope I haven’t done a something against the TOS by reposting one of my previous articles.
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