Words matter. Stories matter.

We say it a lot around our house, words matter. But it’s not just our vocabulary that matters, it’s also the form, how we construct the sentences, and the voice we use.

I’ll admit it, sometimes I’m a little too introspective. Well, maybe more like always. It’s gotten me in trouble more times then I’d like to admit. I wish I could move through the world more lightly. Sometimes, I wish I could take things at face value and not analyze them to pieces. Often, I wish I could let things roll off my back like water rather than chewing on them endlessly like a piece of gum that lost it’s flavor a long time ago. But, that’s just not how I am. Maybe someday I’ll be different, but for now, I dissect things. I think about what’s communicated inadvertently, the layers of subtly below the surface. Regularly, the result of this introspection is me being triggered when no injury was intended by the other.

The truth is we are all careless with our words at time. I know I am. We pass on the same phrases that were passed on to us, not realizing how much harm those words hold unless we really stop to think about it.

By way of example, let me highlight a phrase I overheard recently:

“…The truth is woman have been abused and mistreated for centuries, AND woman are also seductresses, look at the story of Joseph…”

That’s when I stopped listening and walked away. There’s plenty to be triggered about in this short phrase, but did you catch the subtle shift from passive voice to active voice? There’s something important here and I think we use this trick subconsciously and often. When we are talking about a group we identify with we are quick to use passive voice. We do it unconsciously. I do it too. Here’s the problem though, when we use passive voice for a group we identify with and active voice for a group we don’t, when we label the group we don’t identify with, giving them a name (in this case “seductress”), we do harm. I feel like I need to repeat that, when we negatively label a group we don’t identify with we do harm. Inadvertent as it may be, we do harm.

If you are a male struggling to see what might be so triggering in the phrase I overheard, perhaps consider how you would feel if the phrase were said with the roles reversed around a bit. Consider how you would feel if someone said, “Men have been seduced for centuries, AND men are abusers." And then proceeded to use a specific example as illustration. Defensive, maybe? Triggered, maybe? I would venture to bet, probably.

Would it be better to use active voice for both sexes? Sorry English teachers, but I don’t think so. ‘Men are abusers, and women are seductresses’, is still harmful language. We could drop the name calling a bit and go with, ‘Men abuse woman, and women seduce men,’ which might level the playing field, but now it just feels like we’re demeaning everyone, doesn’t it?

I think we always do harm when we place negative labels on another. There’s even science to support this — people rise or fall to their labels, to what we say about them. There are studies that show if we label someone something, they start to act like that label. Call them positive traits and they will rise to those positive traits, but the reverse is equally true.

Here’s the thing, this sentence may sound like a casual misstep to you, a slip of the tongue that doesn’t deserve to be picked apart like this when the intended speaker probably didn’t mean any harm, maybe you’re right, but this is what I do. And I’m guessing I’m not the only woman for whom this isn’t just a one time sentiment, but something I heard my whole life.

Woman are seductresses. They manipulate with their womanly wiles, and if you, as a woman, don’t want to seduce your fellow brothers off the straight and narrow than you better cover up, stay quiet, play small. Don’t hang out with men — you can’t ever really be friends anyway. Oh, and don’t put yourself in positions which are dominantly male, because then you might fall into sin as the seductress or you might CAUSE them to fall into sin (and in the worst cases you might be hurt or abused). So, play it safe, play it small, because, even if you don’t want to be, you are the seductress and if you don’t actively fight against that label, you’ll fall into it.

Can you see how harmful this narrative can be?

And what happens when you add to the language you use, something even more powerful? What happens when the stories you tell reinforce this language? What happens when you hear more about Potiphar’s wife than you do about Deborah, who led Israel justly (side note: Tina Osterhouse’s blog on Deborah)? When you are handed more stories of unnamed prostitutes than you are given stories of woman being equal partners in the work of the kingdom?

What I see is many woman who take one of two paths — owning seductress or running from it. I see young women (and sometimes old) claiming seductress, saying ‘Ok, if that’s what I am then that’s what I’ll be and I’ll redefine it for myself and I’ll use it for myself.’ And I also see many young woman (and old) who take the opposite path, who say, ‘I will not be a seductress so I will hide, I’ll stifle my light, I won’t draw attention to myself, I’ll play it safe.’

I want something different for myself. I want to see something different for my daughter, and my nieces, and all the woman I know. I want to see woman who live without the label of seductress, who live without the fear of abuse, who can move freely and confidently in the world without fearing their power and without channeling their power into only something sexual.

I want to see woman who are wise and confident, who aren’t afraid to live large. I want to be that kind of woman.

And I can’t help but think that this might have to start with some intentionality around the language we use and the stories we tell.

Both men and woman have the potential to abuse, manipulate, and seduce. We all have the potential to harm others. We all make choices with our actions, and whether those choices are intentional or inadvertent, we are responsible for our own actions, we live with the consequences, we have to do the work of repair when we fall short.

And yes, we can all help each other out along the way, because life is hard, and we all fall short.

So, the next time you are engaged in a conversation about men and women, take a step back for a moment and observe the language being used, the stories being told, the narratives at play. Could they be doing harm? Could they be causing another to live in shame, or fear, or defensiveness?

I think language might be one of the hardest things to change, because so often we are oblivious to it, we just speak. Even when we are thinking carefully about what we say we may not consider how someone else will hear it or the lens through which they experience life. Language is habit. We say things over and over without thought and they become engrained in us, they become part of us. That’s why changing our language can go a long way towards changing our behavior and even the behavior of others.

Words matter. Stories matter.

Grace and peace,

Bethany Stedman