Respecting Women: Why Language Matters

Because intentions aren’t enough anymore.

It’s 2017 in the United States of America and women still have to prove day in and day out that they are human beings. When it comes to sexual abuse, harassment, and rape - people are especially afraid to speak up.  When I was a kid, we were taught to scream FIRE if you were being sexually assaulted or harassed because if you screamed RAPE, no one would help you.  

I do believe it’s getting better. The prevalence of us talking outright about the gender related issues in our society is helping create a space where women feel like they can speak up. The New Yorker concurs: “Women have recently felt increasingly emboldened to talk about their experiences because of the way the world has changed regarding issues of sex and power.” That talking is a start. Because it creates listening. It creates action. But it’s not just the women who need to talk. Men, especially - you need to speak up.

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If you read through The The New Yorker’s piece about Weinstein, and you must, you will be filled with disgust, as I was. Reading these women’s stories… reading of Weinstein’s “ongoing predatory behavior” for years and YEARS… you get hit right in the gut with right and wrong. Surely, Weinstein’s behavior (abuse of power, rape, sexual harassment and misconduct) is WRONG. What else is wrong? How the people around him stay hush-hush for years. How those around him don’t speak up. How some of them were hired to bring the women to his hotel room, basically signing them away to a lifetime of trauma. As we all know now… this is common. This is extremely common. Sure, Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly and many others have been fired - but NOT for their actions. Rather, because we, the public, found out about their actions. But those closest to the perpetrators often stay silent. That silence hurt these women for the extent of their lifetime. If those assistants, lawyers, producers, and others had spoken up earlier, could we have saved some women? I think so.

Many years ago, I was on vacation in Florida with some male friends. Good guys. As we drove through a beachside strip of Miami, scarcely dressed women in bikinis walked down the sidewalk in droves. The men I was with - the “good guys” I love and respect - commented to each other inside our rental car compulsively, almost as if their words were out of their control. They said disgusting things about these women, their bodies, what they want to do to them. It was a side of these boys I’d never seen (or heard) before. Now, this was many years ago, so I can’t remember their exact words, but I remember the feeling I got from their words. I was: surprised, horrified, disgusted, disappointed.

My “good guys” spoke about women as objects, vessels for their desire... hardly aware of their own words and their power. To me, their words had great power; I felt their words hit me like daggers. I cleared my throat to remind my friends of my presence. I said, baffled, “I know that men speak like this but I’ve never heard it so blatantly in front of me. If this is what you say about women with me around, I’m terrified of what you say what I’m not.”  

They jokingly got defensive. You know us! You know we love you and we love women!

In these situations, reputation (and intentions) are supposed to be enough. But they are not. Hey, I have gay friends. But hey, also, that doesn’t give me permission to say the word “fag.” I wouldn’t ever. Even typing it here feels wrong.

A similar conversation with a male friend happened just this year. My girl friend and I pointed out how he can be incredibly misogynistic when talking about girls he is dating. We carefully told him to be aware of the weight of his words; the feelings that are attached to them - even when not aimed at us personally. His response? Defensive. Offended.

“You know I love and respect women. I am a Hillary-voting Feminist! I was raised by women. My mother and sister mean the world to me!”

This is not enough. Once again, your assumed intentions or reputation are not enough. Your language matters.

Are you really “a Hillary-voting feminist who was raised by women?” Do you “love your mother and sister?” Then ask yourself: “Would I say these words if my mother and sister were in the room?” If the answer is no, then you are aware that your language is wrong. Your language matters.

Now, of course context also matters - and language (and what is appropriate and what is not) is constantly changing with the times. We all need to keep up. As someone in my life so eloquently put it, “Words can help identify someone who is behind.”  If you have respect for women, pass it on. And show that respect by pointing out when others are showing disrespect. I know this isn’t easy. It’s really, really hard. In fact, I’ll say right now, I'm afraid to post what I am writing right now! I’m afraid of the backlash from friends and strangers alike! Speaking out in any way is scary. But if you, as a man, are afraid to speak up to another man - just imagine how hard it is for an abused woman to speak up about an abusive man - especially a powerful man.

According to The New Yorker:

Mira Sorvino said that she felt afraid and intimidated, and that the incidents [with Weinstein] had a significant impact on her. When she told a female employee at Miramax about the harassment, the woman’s reaction ‘was shock and horror that I had mentioned it.’”
— The New Yorker

Let me reiterate here: The shock and horror was not that the abuse had happened - it was that she spoke about it. We are more horrified of words than of abusive actions?  Why? Because words are powerful.

There is a reason I talk about “Yes And” vs “Yes But” in improv workshops and the feelings associated with both:

it’s because words are powerful.

There is a reason why people (myself included!) didn’t want to call themselves a feminist for years for fear that the word carried an association with negativity and resistance. But We say it now. Why?

Because language matters.

There is a reason you speak differently in front of your mother than you do in front of your best friend.

It's Because language matters.

There is a reason white people don’t and shouldn’t say the N-Word.

It’s because language very much matters!

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We teach our women shame. We teach our women guilt. We teach our women to take self defense classes because of the inevitable. We teach them to "yell fire!" if someone is harassing them. We teach our women not make a scene; to live in it, for fear of ruffling feathers or losing jobs and opportunities. What, I wonder, do we teach our men?  

I am not an expert on any of this. I have zero expertise. I’m writing this now as a way to expunge the ocean of emotions I’ve felt in the wake of these articles: disturbed, sad, disgusted, horrified, anxious. We all need to do better. But men - you "good guys" out there: we especially need you to do better. Society needs your help. When you’re in Miami and there are good looking women around, how about not talking about their tits? How about when you hear a friend talking about what he would DO TO a woman, you point out how his words are wrong and disrespectful. Point out that she is a person not an object. Speak up for women.

The New York Times and The New Yorker used words - and it helped expose a giant, powerful rapist. Words can incite change.

There are SO many Weinsteins. They are everywhere and they are persistent. One of them is running our country right now. We can’t beat their money or their power. But we do have our voices. We have our words. So use them.

[Main Photo by Remy_Loz on Unsplash]