Use clear, accurate and respectful vocabulary
- Vague terms that conceal the specific nature and severity of violence. Words such as “incident” tell us nothing about the violence.
- Vocabulary that mutualizes violence. “Mutualizing” occurs when we use words or descriptions that shift responsibility or blame from the perpetrator to the victim. Violence is unilateral – done against another person – and should be described this way. For example, avoid saying “they fought” when one person hit or beat another person.
- Use clear language that accurately describes violence and assigns responsibility to the perpetrator.
- Respect gender identity and expression and write clearly, consistently and respectfully about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues. Use terminology that is unambiguous, broadly accepted and neutral in tone, as recommended in the Trans Pride Canada’s Style Guide.
Avoid unnecessary descriptions
- Inflammatory statements and descriptions with irrelevant information – such as lifestyle choices, clothing, sexual history, citizenship or profession – that perpetuate victim blaming and undermine the responsibility of the perpetrator.
- Statements that suggest a positive bias towards a perpetrator’s innocence based on details such as their community standing, race, ethnicity, religion or profession.
- Ensure the victim’s voice is present but leave out unnecessary information about both the victim and the perpetrator. Use the appropriate level of detail to show the victim’s resistance to violence. Be balanced: too much detail can be gratuitous; too little can weaken the victim’s position.
Have you concealed the violence?
- Passive voice and vocabulary that shift the responsibility for the violence from the perpetrator to the victim. For example, statements in passive voice such as “the victim alleged she was raped” fail to reflect that the perpetrator was responsible for the rape. A statement such as “the victim reported the man raped her” is more powerful and clear. Violence is committed against the victim; therefore a victim does not, for example, “engage in” or “perform” sexualized acts. “Sex” and “sexual” are terms that should only be used to describe truly sexual acts; that is, acts that are consensual (mutually agreed upon).
- Use active voice and language that focus attention on the person committing the crime. Make the perpetrator the subject of the sentence and assign verbs to them. For example, “the man kicked her in the head” is clearer than “the victim was kicked.”
Have you implied racial or cultural reasons for violence?
- Statements implying that members of particular groups all behave the same way. It is important to use similar terms for similar actions regardless of a perpetrator’s “race” or ethnicity. For example, avoid describing perpetrators from the visible majority as “shooters” or “mentally ill” while calling people from visible minorities “killers,” “terrorists,” or “thugs.”
- Ensure that your writing does not perpetuate racism or stereotypical perspectives or imply that violence is normal in certain communities.
Have you diminished, exaggerated or rationalized violence?
- Inferences or statements that diminish or exaggerate the occurrence of violence. Violence can occur in all circumstances. For example, violence can occur day and night, with or without alcohol and in public or in the privacy of one’s home. Don’t describe circumstances as either “usual” or “uncommon” or suggest some forms of violence are more serious than others.
- Clearly and accurately describe violence. Use statistics and facts to support statements.
Some vocabulary to avoid
Alternatives: sexualized assault, sexualized violence, violence using sexualized actions, violent sexualized acts, rape.
Why? “Sexual” is consensual and mutualizing. It places responsibility with both the perpetrator and victim. While the term “sexual assault” is often used, “sexualized assault” more accurately describes unilateral (one-sided), non-consensual actions by a perpetrator and should be used instead. It isn’t possible to consent to sexualized assault or violence.
Why? The terms “intercourse” and “sex” describe consensual sexual activity. They imply mutual consent, which suggests the victim was a participant in the activity – that something was done “with” them rather than “against” them. Using these terms normalizes and reconstructs criminal behaviours and equates rape to everyday activity.
Alternatives: forced oral contact, forced mouth on the victim’s mouth (or other body part)
Why? Kissing is a consensual act between two people; it is an act of intimacy or affection. The word “kiss” mutualizes the action and conceals the assault.
alleged, admitted, confessed
Alternatives: reports, reported
Why? Avoid “alleged” because it reinforces the belief that a crime may not have actually occurred. Terms “admitted” and “confessed” imply the victim assumes some responsibility for the violence. “Reports” is more neutral and appropriate.
Be specific and indicate who said what: “Jane Doe reports that…” or “Police say…”
Do not declare a perpetrator’s guilt or innocence until it is proven in the Canadian criminal justice system. Use statements such as “John Doe is reported to be facing charges for…” or “Jane Doe has been charged with…”
Alternatives: witnessed, traumatized, harmed
Why? Those who experience violence are never “unharmed.” Physical injuries may not be present; however, violence causes varying levels of traumatic harm. Descriptions should accurately convey physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harm.
Avoid statements such as “children were upstairs and unharmed” because all children are harmed when they hear or see violence.
Alternatives: intimate partner violence, domestic violence
Why? A “dispute” is a disagreement or argument between two equal parties. “Domestic dispute” minimizes the seriousness of the violence and implies mutual responsibility. It also suggests an isolated incident and may hide patterns of abuse.
Alternatives: attack, sexualized assault, rape
Why? “Incident” is a vague term and does not allow for appropriate social responses. Use clear and accurate language to describe the criminal act.
sex with a minor, child sex tourism, child sex trade, child pornography, child prostitution
Alternatives: rape of a child, international child rape, sexualized violation of a child, rape for profit
Why? Children cannot consent to “sex.” Using the term “rape” is therefore critically important. Children lack the legal capacity to provide consent and therefore no blame or responsibility should be placed with the child.
Alternatives: grabbing body parts, forced touching, forcibly touched
Why? “Sexual” makes the acts seem sensual or pleasurable rather than criminal, harmful and forced upon the victim. Name the body parts to make statement more clear.
Alternatives: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, online sexualized exploitation, harassment
Why? Be careful using the term “bullying” because it is vague and imprecise. The term can minimize the severity and criminality of abuse, force, threat, intimidation or aggression. Be specific about the nature of the violent behaviour if you can.
Using accurate language about violence
How we communicate about violence matters. When we describe violence in vague, misleading and inaccurate language, this obscures and conceals its criminal nature and severity and the responsibility of perpetrators. It also has a negative impact on the level of support a victim receives from service providers and the community, and influences what happens as someone goes through the justice system.
The Government of Yukon has committed to using clear, accurate and respectful language that reflects the true nature of violence and its impact on people.
Violence has many forms – here are some:
- domestic and intimate partner