How language trivialises violence against women

How is violence against women reported in the media and how do these reports influence our thinking? For years, German language researchers investigating violence have warned against the use of “domestic abuse” (“Beziehungsdrama”), “family tragedy” (“Familientragödie”) and similar terms. Murder is murder and not a “domestic abuse” and rape is not a “sexual violence” – apparently using synonyms can make a big difference to perception. In this article we explain how language shapes our perception and why the media has such an important responsibility when it comes to wording.


According to the AÖF (Austrian Independent Women’s Refuges), 20 women were allegedly murdered by male (ex) partners, acquaintances or family members in the year to September 2021. Almost a third of all women in Austria between the ages of 16 and 60 have been victims of sexual violence and three quarters had experienced sexual harassment. The problem with using terms such as “domestic abuse” in connection with feminicide has been criticized by violence protection experts for years. The facts are clear: Language influences our thinking – the extent of this influence is underestimated time and time again.


The use of euphemisms is intended to soften the pictures of harm in our minds and to normalise it. This is a mistake. Violence and murders of and against women happen no matter how much we like to not address the topic directly. Using terms such as “revenge killing” or “inappropriate behaviour” (referring to men) normalises violence and implies some kind of fault of the victim. This should not be tolerated.


Communication scientist Christine Meltzer finds it particularly problematic when a motive for a crime is also mentioned in a way that trivialises the perpetrators actions. Examples are committing acts of violence due to reasonable actions taken by the victim such as ending a relationship. “Broken heart”, “frustration” or “rejection” are never legitimate reasons for violence. The perpetrator’s emotions should not be included in reports of acts of violence against women. When women were killed by their partners or ex-partners, it is often said that a murder due to broken heart, jealousy or fear of loss, which is very “tragic”.  This is a clear misrepresentation of the facts according to Meltzer in an interview. She says that nobody commits murder for due to a broken heart, but often due to a false sense of ownership of their victim. These softening terms give media consumers the feeling that these are isolated incidents, a simple quarrel within a particular family or amongst a couple. Sadly these incidents are not isolated.  Femicides occur all too often and violence which can be an indicator for risk of femicide is not a private matter to be resolved in the family. These problems are structural and social. They are not a private matter and should be all of our business and concern.


Tabloids in particular tend to use abbreviations and terms that rouse the emotions of the reader. It was only in August of this year that Kronen Zeitung printed the headline “Grabbed between legs – sex attack on 22-year-old” instead of clearly speaking out about sexual harassment. Another example can be found on the online news portal A 17-year-old from Morocco became a victim to a “sex gang”, according to the headline on September 23, 2021.


In media reporting, a “sexual offense” often becomes  “sex crime”or “sex attack” or the like. While “sexual offense” is a relatively neutral attribute, the abbreviation gives the crime an erotic connotation. When we hear the word “sex” we think of  consensual relations, “sex attack” doesn’t sound as shocking as the terms “rape” or “coercion”. The term “sex gang” is also inappropriate; it does not necessarily indicate a criminal offense in and of itself. When we hear the word “gang”, we think of Thomas Brezina’s “Knickerbockerbande” or the “Wilde Hühner”, and not for example a group of adult men who raped and tortured a young woman for over two months. Rape has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power and violence. Also, sexual harassment should never be dismissed as an “attempt at flirtation” that went wrong.


“Yet another woman was murdered”. This sentence is one that goes through the media far too often. It is also a sentence that is formulated in a passive manner. Who are the perpetrators of violence against women one might ask? The problem with the aforementioned headline is – the perpetrator is not identified. In this case it would be better to use wording that denounces the perpetrator and at the same time does not provide justification for the crime. That doesn’t mean leaving out relevant information. If, for example, it is known that the perpetrator was intoxicated, it is important to convey this information without giving too much weight to the influence of alcohol or using it as a reason to justify the crime. Journalists really do not have an easy task. Reporting violence against women requires careful wording and much expertise.

Does the way femicides, harassment, and other forms of violence against women are reported really make a difference? Yes, says the linguist Karin Wetschanow and explains: “The more often something is said, the more it becomes normalised.” Murder is murder, rape is rape and should also be named and not paraphrased or played down. By choosing words carefully, the media can help prevent violence in the long term. It is also important that places or organisations where victims can get help are mentioned in each article or after each television or radio segment.


Across Austria a women’s emergency number of the Independent Austrian Women’s Shelters (AÖF for short) is available, the number is 0800 222555. The City of Vienna also operates a women’s emergency number where advice is offered in all foreign languages. This can be reached around the clock on 01 71719.