Violence against women and girls - language matters

Language matters when we talk about violence against women and girls. In the last 15 years we have seen the word woman not being used, replaced with the word people or non-man, or replaced with dehumanising body-part terms such as cervix havers, chestfeeders, pregnant people or menstruators. Attempting to eradicate biological sex by not naming women as women doesn’t make all the nasty, horrible things disappear and it does not give equality to women. The violence and rapes still happen it just means it is harder to measure something that is not defined. When it comes to violence against women and girls if we cannot name those who are being violated it makes it very difficult to defend them.

A couple of years ago a local campaign near me decided to drop the word woman and use the higher level term ‘gender-based violence’ to highlight violence against women and girls. (Gender-based violence covers violence against males and females.) Fantastic branded signs adorned our bus stops and public buildings but no one knew what the campaign was about. It was a waste of resources and money. By taking out the word woman the campaign had forgotten who the victims were - women and why they were victims - because of their sex.

Prison statistics for England and Wales show that 99% of sexual offenders are male1 and we know that 88% of those offended against in such cases are female.2 These figures are replicated around the world. We cannot deny the biological difference here, men are the perpetrators, females are the victims. In the UK rape can only be committed by males.3 When a man rapes a woman he does so because of her biology not because of what she is referred to as. Women are oppressed and violated on the basis of their sex and to deny they have a sex by not using the word woman is gaslighting, which is another form of abuse. A male human is capable of killing a woman with his bare hands and we know that in the UK three women a week are murdered by a man.

Pornography is having a massive impact on violence against women and girls. Over 88% of pornography scenes show sexual violence towards women.4 Strangulation, beating and rape are the norm in pornography. One in three children have watched ‘hardcore’ pornography by the age of 12. We are in an era where violence against women and girls is being normalised at an early age in the palm of our children’s hands. Boys are learning that girls can be objectified, humiliated, and attacked physically and sexually. Both boys and girls are learning that it is ‘normal’ for sex to hurt and that violence during sex is ‘normal’.

If we want to reduce violence against women and girls we have to use sex based language. To acknowledge biological sex matters and language matters helps us name the problem and find solutions. We have to be honest with our children about the harms of pornography and have conversations with them at a much younger age. We have to give them the language to reject the use of pornography so our boys can grow into adult men who can have a functioning sex life and our girls do not live in fear of their next sexual encounter. If women and girls are to achieve equality we have to significantly reduce violence against them.


This is one of a series of four blogs SEEN is publishing to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2023. See here for the others.

Cover photo by UN Women on Flickr (licence)



Posts from individual SEEN members who need to remain anonymous.

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