Warning: this article may be triggering due to the topic and content.
Recently, I have been learning about the power of a shared language, particularly for women. In educational terms, women are considered to be a part of the “muted group”. This means that women are marginalized, excluded, and made less powerful via the use of language. The term muted group can also be applied to other oppressed groups. Edwin and Shirley Ardener, the British anthropologists who created muted group theory noticed that society was designed for and generalized to the male population.
When you know what
to call what you’ve been
through, it is extremely
Cheris Kramarae, a professor in women’s studies, researches the idea that communication was started by men, and as a result, language only benefits men and is used to silence women to continue the power dynamic between the two. This means when a woman shows up to a social space, she faces exclusive and abusive language.
How this shows up today may be more subtle yet is still present. Women in recent decades have progressed in shared language, which allows us to articulate things predominantly experienced by women. Thus creating terminology for what has been intentionally undeveloped throughout history.
It became particularly urgent to coin terms related to sexual abuse to label experiences. The term sexual harassment, first published in 1973, shows feminist achievement because it encodes our experience into a common language. Perpetrators have a shared language to confuse and intentionally manipulate victims as to what’s happening. So developing a way to talk about our shared experiences allows us cut through confusion and isolation to understand the breadth of occurrence and organize for change.
Along with sexual harassment, date rape, first put in print in 1975, is a term fairly new to my own vocabulary. The term date rape allows us to acknowledge that the perpetrator of rape can be someone the victim knows and has possibly been seeing romantically. Historically rapes were considered a property crime against the father or husband, not recognizing the woman as victim. The woman as victim wasn’t more fully recognized until 1993, when marital rape had been made illegal in all 50 states. The creation of the term date rape validates the severity of the experience by recognizing that this is just as traumatic as the act being committed by a stranger and allows a better understanding of what it means to give consent.
Why does this matter, why is there a need for common language? First and foremost, it allows women to identify whether their own experiences are or have been oppressive and to find community with other femaleidentified individuals. It then allows us to heal from our traumatic experiences by being able to label and make sense of what they mean. When you know what to call what you’ve been through, it is extremely empowering and selfliberating.
I know the power of this because I have experienced sexual abuse more than once in my life. It has been extremely liberating to be able to identify and validate my experiences and have a name for them. I now feel empowered to talk about them with confidence because I have given myself time to label, process, and stand by my truth.
A common language is especially important for muted groups because it helps to generate power, taking an educational step to breaking down disparities by acknowledging they exist.