The Power of Language

Getting the Terminology Right When Speaking About Domestic Violence Awareness

In the USA, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of domestic violence by their partner. Unfortunately, that statistic doesn't represent all people, and it's safe to assume that the fear of reporting domestic abuse stops the statistics from being more accurate. In the realm of domestic violence awareness, language is a powerful tool that can shape perceptions, challenge stereotypes, and empower survivors.

In this article, we're going to talk about the ways in which words and narratives influence our understanding of domestic violence. We hope to offer a better understanding of how strong words can be, how they can be applied to comprehend the issue of domestic violence, and how the language we use could help others release themselves from potentially terrible situations.

Why the Language we use is so Powerful

The language we use in the context of domestic violence can have related legal implications, so it's hugely important to use the right terminology and vocabulary when reporting on it. First, it starts with understanding the different types.

According to Women's Aid, domestic violence can include but is not limited to:

  • Control through coercion. (including but not limited to isolation, control through threats, intimidation, degradation, or making a person dependent on the abuser.)
  • Physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Financial or economic abuse. (including but not limited to controlling income, controlling access to transport or technology, or daily essentials.)
  • Harassment and/or stalking
  • Online, cyber abuse, and/or digital abuse

When Language Matters

It is worth mentioning here that everyone's experience of abuse is different and personal. However, having a base knowledge of the different terminology is crucial to support those who experience it. Without this understanding, you might inadvertently use assumptive or insensitive language, which can further isolate survivors and hinder the effectiveness of support systems.

The language that we use in the context of domestic violence also holds immense power when it comes to legal implications. Precise and well-articulated language is crucial for several reasons:

  1. Language helps supportive resources to unilaterally and accurately define and categorize different forms of abuse.
  2. The correct language enables legal systems to apply the law effectively. Incorrect or imprecise language can also have a profound impact on the pursuit of justice for individuals seeking support, resulting in inadequate legal responses and misunderstandings.
  3. On a social level, language underpins public awareness campaigns, education efforts, and policy advocacy, shedding light on the multifaceted nature of domestic violence.

Getting the Terminology Right When Speaking About Domestic Violence 

Language shapes perceptions and attitudes toward domestic violence. The choice of words can either stigmatize or destigmatize the issue. Here are a few dos and don'ts.


  • Follow the lead of the person who is seeking support with the language you use. Refrain from labeling them; instead, encourage them to open up through active listening and by validating their experiences.
  • Adopt user-centered language, not statistics. For example, use words like "Personal experiences, rather than case studies," "seeking support," or "reaching out for help" rather than reporting. 
  • Human first, while the law labels people who have experienced abuse as "victims" and some organizations use "survivors," follow the lead of the person seeking support.
  • Always use inclusive language like pronouns they/them unless the person tells you their pronoun.
  • Educate yourself on different types of DV before reporting on it.


  • Avoid victim-blaming language. Phrases like "they were asking for it" or "they should have known better" are a big don’t, as they shift blame onto the survivor rather than holding perpetrators accountable.
  • Stop reinforcing stereotypes. Headlines or language that perpetuate stereotypes, such as "talking about what someone is wearing," can contribute to misconceptions about domestic violence and undermine the seriousness of the issue.
  • Do not use minimizing language like "It's not that bad" or any phrase that makes the other person doubt the seriousness of what happened to them.
  • Label people as to what happened to them. Instead, use language that respects their individuality and experience. For example, there's a lot of difference between "They are a domestic violence victim" to "They have experienced domestic violence." This user-centered language acknowledges the experiences of individuals without reducing them to a label. It respects their agency and emphasizes their strength and resilience.

Be Mindful and Uplift With the Language you Choose

Navigating domestic abuse with our words can be tricky, and the language we choose isn't always appropriate, even if we believe otherwise. Perhaps at the very core of choosing vocabulary is the concept of “'lifting up,” not “pulling down.” By embracing survivor-centered and non-blaming vocabulary, you can cultivate or at least start the discussion of domestic abuse with a lot less hesitation and fear. Here are a few examples:

  • Avoid automatically saying "victim" or "survivor”; instead, follow the lead of the person seeking support. This acknowledges the strength of individuals who have experienced abuse.
  • Avoid saying, "Why didn't you leave?" and instead ask, "What challenges did you face finding safety?" This places the focus on the obstacles survivors encounter rather than placing blame.
  • Reframe "domestic violence incident" as "abusive episode" to emphasize that the responsibility lies with the abuser, not the survivor.
  • Say "seeking safety" instead of "escaping the relationship" to highlight the survivor's journey towards protection while not undermining their situation.

While these changes to vocabulary may seem tough or small, remember that every slight adjustment in your words can make a difference. When uplifting someone, you make them feel safe and confident; domestic abuse requires this to truly help those affected.

Supporting Survivors With Sensitive Terminology

List of supportive educational resources for using inclusive terminology.

  1. What is Domestic Abuse? - Women’s Aid 
    Educational guide on understanding domestic abuse and the different types.
  2. Myths About Domestic Abuse - Women’s Aid
    List of myths and misconceptions when talking about domestic abuse.
  3. Domestic Violence and Abuse Terminology
    Learn the terminology surrounding domestic violence and abuse.

The Power of Language Resources

The terminology we use matters. Explore mindful language with these resources.

Raising Awareness

List of educational guides that aim to use inclusive language and terminology when talking about domestic violence and abuse to young people and adults.

  1. Love is not Abuse - Health Smart Virginia
    Educational guide for educators and organizations working with young teenagers and pre-teens on navigating relationships.
  2. Domestic abuse: Educational Toolkit 
    Comprehensive educational toolkit addressing domestic abuse and violence among young people and children.
  3. Domestic Violence and Abuse - Help Guide
    A short educational guide on recognizing the signs of domestic abuse.

Inclusive and Supportive Domestic Awareness Resources

DV experiences are individual and diverse, so the response needs to be, too. Explore this list of inclusive resources.

DV Organizations and Gender Based Violence Directories

Explore vital DV organizations and gender-based violence directories, offering support, information, and connections for those affected by abuse.


Language is powerful, and as we've discovered, it can be an essential tool to explain, escape, and fight domestic abuse. The words we choose aren't merely tools for communication; they serve as the catalysts for change and reflection.

We hope you have found the explanations of sensitive terminology and the resources we have listed helpful. Ultimately, the most important point of this article is to use language that supports and uplifts those who have experienced domestic abuse to get help and feel empowered. It is always possible to get help, and helping others learn the power of their words and language is the first step.

About the Author

Sarah Perowne

Sarah Perowne is a language and education specialist with over 10 years of experience in teaching and content creation. She has worked with students of all ages in various teaching methods, including those with disabilities and ASD. She sports an acute knowledge and skillset in teaching English as a second/foreign language (ESL) English Language Arts and creating content for online teaching resources, articles, and podcasts.

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