Play Like A Girl:
Three Ways to Combat Injustice With Language
How is individual identity formed? It’s DNA, it’s environment, it’s a host of other factors, and it’s also language. Our perception of the world around us is measured through the filter of language, the words we have that define the difference between what is good and evil and the gray spaces in between.
In her essay “Why Sexist Language Matters,” sociology professor Sherryl Kleinman affirms, “The words we use can also reinforce current realities when they are sexist. Words are tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways—which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality.” Contrary to the old “sticks and stones” adage, words in fact do hurt. They can change who you are, or perceive yourself to be, or how a whole group of society perceives another whole group. But the good news is that, as Kleinman says, they can also shape new, more just realities.
They can change who you are, how you perceive yourself, or how a whole societal group perceives another whole group.
So. How does the identity-forming power of language relate to the fight against human trafficking, and what I can do about it, you might wonder? How can I wield the awesome responsibility of my own speech in such a way that I help create a more just world? I’m glad you asked. Here’s how.
1.) Slut (And All Its Synonyms) Must Go
Our language is creative. It’s beautiful and powerful, but if you look closer it can also reveal centuries-old injustices. There are hundreds of synonyms for the word slut, and they are all female-specific: skank, hussy, whore (not so for men; there are a mere handful that are similar). This double standard illustrates the prevailing agreement throughout history that sexually active men are to be congratulated and celebrated, but women who are perceived as “too sexual” are condemned.
In my short number of years, I’ve heard people say over and over, whether in jest or in seriousness, she’s such a slut. She was really acting skanky, and similar things. Those language choices have real-life repercussionssuch as the way we perceive and define women, and in very serious situations, such as rape, when a victim is asked whether her behavior/dress/etc. was sufficiently slutty to have encouraged the perpetrator to rape them her. The assessment needs to be not what were you wearing, but what was he thinking?
Human trafficking survivors already have a stigma attached to them; let’s start chipping away at that stigma by removing the words that describe a less-than virginal woman as second-hand and worthless. Language matters.
2.) Playing Like A Girl Is Not An Insult (And Having Emotions Is Okay)
There are overtly derogatory terms that we would all recognize and agree are inappropriate; however, there are many more subtly unjust phrases that we should also banish from the lexicon. You’ve heard these before: “You play like a girl” or “Don’t be such a sissy” (usually both used against boys for not being athletic enough or for exhibiting “female” emotions). Throwing a ball like a girl seems to be tantamount to the most offensive thing you could say to a little boy. What else does this teach our girls but that to play like them is a demeaning thing, that the very fabric of who they are is ammunition for verbal abuse?
And what does it teach little boys? That playing like a girl is an insult? That girls’ skills automatically rank lower than theirs, in the scheme of things? We must level the playing field from the time our children are young, from the time they are born, not to regard girls as inferior, especially through the medium of language. We must teach our next generation of men that having emotions is not only okay, it’s natural and human and doesn’t make him any less of a man. We must teach our next generation that women are powerful, intelligent, capable, and worthy of respect.
What else is human trafficking but a breakdown of the respect for the sanctity and the strength of another human life? We must teach our youth from the beginning to honor each other, respect one another, and cultivate a reverence for one another’s humanity.
3.) “You Guys,” “Mankind,” “Firemen,” And Other Masculine Generics
This is the category that most often receives backlash from the general populace, where the understanding of the importance of language breaks down. They’re just words, harmless innocent words, what does it matter? With a word like whore, we can automatically see the damage and agree to abstain. But does chairman or freshman or mailman or policeman really make a difference in the way women are treated or perceived?
Years ago I used “mankind” and “you guys” with abandon, without thought, and without taking offense. But the more I have learned and the more I have thought about it, I am no longer comfortable being lumped under the category of mankind, or expected to see myself represented in those kinds of terms. Especially not when there are gender inclusive terms readily available for use. Try "humankind" in place of "mankind", "you all" instead of "you guys", "police officer" instead of "policeman."
As an illustration, consider this, again from Sherryl Kleinman: “In 1986 Douglas Hofstadter, a philosopher, wrote a parody of sexist language by making an analogy with race. His article creates an imaginary world in which generics are based on race rather than gender. In that world, people would use “freshwhite,” “chairwhite” and yes, “you whiteys.” People of color would hear “all whites are created equal”—and expect to feel included. Substituting “white” for “man” makes it easy to see why using “man” for all human beings is wrong […] If we cringe at “freshwhite” and “you whiteys” and would protest such terms with loud voices, then why don’t we work as hard at changing “freshman” and “you guys”? If women primarily exist in language as “girls” (children), “sluts,” and “guys,” it does not surprise me that we still have a long list of gendered inequalities to fix.”
And one of those gendered inequalities is certainly human trafficking. If we truly rejoice in the fact that “male and female God created them,” we must acknowledge the equal place of women in God’s plan. If we can commit to tweaking our language now, and teaching those who come after us to do the same, these small shifts will result in real-world change, in time. No one need wait a single minute to start this process.
Let Your Speech Build Each Other Up
So. You might think the most drastic measure someone could take to fight human trafficking would be to march into a brothel, incarcerate the pimps, and rescue the enslaved women on the spot. It’s a good movie plot and it does happen occasionally (just think if the anti-trafficking world had its own Machine Gun Preacher), but what if the women were never enslaved in the first place, the pimps never thought to turn a profit from human bodies, the situation never occurred at all?
I don’t think language will solve the entire problem, but I do think if we make an intentional effort to use inclusive, affirming, empowering language, women (and men) everywhere will benefit. With subtle changes in our language, and therefore our cultural identity, we can make strides toward the just world God intended. When in doubt, think of Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”