Sophie Frankpitt portrait

Written by Sophie Frankpitt

Applied Linguistics undergraduate at the University of Warwick

A culture of sexual- and gender-based violence is being enacted through our words. But we still aren’t listening – and we still aren’t talking about language.

In June 2021, the government published a review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. It showed us that sexual- and gender-based violence is rife, and that girls are disproportionately affected. The figures were stark, but for many of us that did not come as a surprise. What came as a surprise for me is that – as far as I’m aware – no-one pointed out that most of the sexual harassment was perpetrated through language. 

I’m a Linguistics undergraduate, which means that studying language is what I do. Ever since the review was published, I’ve spent days rereading it, trying to work out how to articulately say that this survey shows us how important language is. It is through working with Our Streets Now for the last few months that I have been able to work out how to say what I think needs to be said. 

The review stated that 92% of girls thought sexist-name calling happens a lot at school, and 80% thought that unwanted sexual comments are a regular occurrence. Other recent studies have also shown us that sexual- and gender-based violence are often perpetrated through language. For example, in 2018, Plan International reported that 38% of girls experience verbal harassment at least once a month. This is likely to be higher amongst women of colour and those in the LGBT+ community. In the National Education Union’s (2019) study, over a quarter of teachers hear sexist language daily at school. On Our Streets Now media, the campaign against Public Sexual Harassment, you can see various testimonies that explain the effects of verbal (and other) harassment. 

You might say that sexist language is the least of our problems, and that we should be dealing with things like physical harassment. But sexist language establishes a conducive environment for sexist behaviour. It enacts and builds a culture in which sexual- and gender-based violence is standard. This means that, by using and hearing sexist language, a culture of sexual- and gender-based violence is normalised. There are many, many studies that have shown the detrimental effects of sexist language on wellbeing. And this is why language is important. 

Part of the reason language is powerful is because it shapes our worlds often without us even realising. Within our words lie our values, our beliefs, and our identities. Because of this, language has a massive role to play in the fight for gender equality. 

The first step is recognising how important language is – and thinking and talking about it much more than we currently do.

Secondly, we can incorporate teaching about anti-sexist language use into the curriculum. Our Streets Now currently has – and is working on – resources for schools that examine the role language has to play in combatting Public Sexual Harassment. The resources educate about Public Sexual Harassment, ranging from topics like being an active bystander to recognising victim-blaming narratives. 

And finally, we can make Feminist Linguistics more mainstream. Language affects all of us, so it’s damaging to keep it confined within academia. Every day and for everything, we use language – so we should all understand the power that words hold. There are a few resources that can help us to learn a bit more about language. I’d recommend starting with the blog language: a feminist guide, taking a look at Our Streets Now’s website, and learning about feminists (such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Amanda Gorman, Laura Bates –Every Day Sexism and many more) who use language to empower, uplift, and educate.

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