Developing a Common Language

Varied and intentional use of language in a range of settings reflect a particular perspective and convey to the listener the meaning of unique, individualized concepts.  Inherently, there are differences in how language is used by and between the RHY and DV/SA fields that can act as potential barriers to collaboration.

An early element of coalition building between the RHY and DV/SA should include discussions to identify terms that may be misunderstood and misinterpreted by professionals in other fields, and those in common use in one setting that may not resonate in another.

These and other language challenges are discussed in more detail below. See also Section 1 of the Toolkit: Key Terms and Definitions.

The Label RHY: | Back to Top

Youth who have run from their living situation are often referred to as runaways, couch surfers, shelter hoppers, travelers, street-dependent youth, etc.  Likewise youth in unhealthy relationships are described as experiencing dating violence, intimate partner violence, or domestic violence.  While service providers, researchers and government officials use these terms as a way to better understand who these youth are and determine their eligibility for services, young people that belong to these populations may not view themselves in any of these categories.  They often describe what their experiences are or what the situation is without a label. In delivering services, it is important to be mindful that using these labels can alienate a youth seeking much needed services and supports.   

Gendered Language in DV/SA Programs: | Back to Top

In the framework of DV/SA service provision, the use of gendered language to describe victims and perpetrators has sometimes been a controversial one.  The DV/SA movements have historically focused on gender-based societal inequities as an important root cause and context for the violence, abuse and coercive control women experience at the hands of male partners. As the movement focus has expanded and diverse populations and experiences have emerged, new and more inclusive language is emerging.

Within the DV/SA field, the terms "battered woman" and "victim/survivor" are often used to refer to those accessing the services of local DV/SA programs.  Because most domestic violence victims are women abused by a male partner and women and girls are disproportionately at risk for sexual violence, DV/SA programs typically refer to victims/survivors as using female pronouns and perpetrators as male, although with acknowledgement that this may not fully reflect the context and complexity in which domestic and sexual violence occurs.  All victims of domestic and sexual violence deserve safety and advocacy, including those in same-sex relationships and male victims abused by female partners.

Victim vs. Perpetrator: | Back to Top

Generally speaking, the RHY field does not differentiate between victim and perpetrator as does the DV/SA field.  If a boy is raised watching his alcoholic father abuse his mother and subsequently runs away, he is likely to see similar relationships on the street and/or model what he has learned. Is this 15-year old a victim or a perpetrator?  Is he a witness to domestic violence or a perpetrator?  DV/SA have and will see young boys in shelter who have witnessed their mother’s victimization and ten years later provide services to his victim.  Naming this man as both victim and perpetrator continues to generate debate within the field of DV/SA since as an adult he is believed responsible for his behavior and using his own childhood experiences as an excuse is not acceptable. In the RHY field, services are available for youth on the streets, no matter the reasons or circumstances that resulted in running away/homelessness or their current behaviors in relationships, while most DV/SA programs continue to provide services primarily to victims/survivors.

Power and Control: | Back to Top

Conceptually, the embodiment of power and control can be very different within the RHY and DV/SA systems and yet much the same.  Domestic and sexual violence, including relationship violence, is characterized by and defined as unhealthy relationships in which one person exerts power and control over an intimate partner.  This is the negative aspect of power and control, when used abusively.  Runaway and homeless youth seeking services often lack essential power and control over their circumstances and often view themselves as powerless.  Having the control and the power to make decisions that will improve their situation is something that RHY and DV/SA programs work to develop with those with whom they are working – efforts seen as empowering or helping to build autonomy and agency.  This reflects the positive side of the “power and control” coin.  

Dating Violence vs. Relationship Violence/Abuse: | Back to Top

For a youth living on the street, “dating” may seem like something very foreign to their current circumstances.  In the traditional sense, a “teen dating partner” is typically understood to be a boyfriend and girlfriend, although someone with whom a teen may or may not be sexually active.  However “dates” may also take the form of a partner for single, planned events such as a date for the movies, a music concert, or a house party with friends from school.  The context is usually non-cohabitating relationships that vary widely in their level of intimacy, role expectations, and duration, such as a partner in a casual unplanned encounter, a sexual partner in one or a series of casual encounters, or members of a group who regularly socialize or hang out together. “Teen dating violence” happens when abusive tactics are used to control, manipulate, humiliate, and abuse the other partner.

For runaway and homeless youth, “dating” might mean the person that is “taking care of you”.  This relationship is most likely related to meeting the basic necessities – food, clothing, shelter, protection, or money for food and other basic needs – to survive on the streets and it is often one where the youth is sexually exploited.  Youth living on the street may not identify with the language in common use by DV/SA program advocates.  This has implications for how intake questions and screening and assessment are approached.  For example, asking “Do you feel safe in your relationship?” is more likely to connect to a possibly violent relationship than asking, “Does the person you date ever hit you?”

Relationship violence may be a more useful term to use than dating violence within RHY and DV/SA collaborations.

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