Congressman Yoho slurs Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. His slur says more about him than her.
Imagine you are a man sitting in a bar with friends in a post-COVID world. Someone uses the kind of language Congressman Yoho used to attack Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. How would you respond?
One of the best domestic violence advocates I ever worked with was Lynn Sheinkin. One of her roles was participating in the discussions we have as part of the training for the NY Model Batterer Program where I teach. We often focus critical attention on language. One day we discussed the hateful and offensive language used to attack women. Lynn calls it the language of abuse, and it is a phrase I will always remember.
The story of Yoho’s slur is all too common, but we wouldn’t expect it to be used so blatantly in public by a member of Congress. He abruptly approached Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, waved his finger in her face, and criticized her for equating poverty and crime. She told him he was rude. In the batterer program where I teach, we deliberately refuse to repeat the language Yoho used about the Congresswoman as he walked away. Suffice to say it was the kind of women-hating language that Lynn referenced.
A reporter overheard the exchange on the Capital’s steps, so Yoho could not completely deny the encounter. He spoke on the floor of the House to deliver a typical non-apology apology. Yoho denied his most offensive words and apologized if his actions were misunderstood. He then tried to imply he could not have acted so offensively to a woman because he has a wife and daughters.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded in a speech to the House of Representatives and perhaps had her finest moment. She said she wasn’t hurt because she had heard this language many times before, especially when she was a waitress and bartender. Still, the language of abuse is harmful to all women. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez said that having a wife and daughters does not make you respectful. Treating women respectfully makes you respectful.
Why Language Matters
Batterer narratives tell us that most domestic violence abusers would say that it is wrong for a man to assault a woman, EXCEPT… One exception is if she does something that he defines as improper. Another is if she is a (insert the slur), but the language used by Congressman Yoho is one of the most common slurs. In other words, this language gives men permission to rape and assault women, or at least abusive and sexist men believe this.
Sexism and misogyny are based on male privilege and entitlement. This White Congressman walked up to a young Congresswoman he had never spoken to before, raised a policy dispute, and called her disgusting. Then when he didn’t get the satisfaction, he believed he deserved, referred to her in the most offensive terms. If a reporter had not overheard the exchange, Yoho might have lied about the full discussion instead of his most offensive words. Another Congressman who was with Yoho pretended not to have heard the offensive statements.
Many of the worst sexist slurs in the English language refer to women having sex outside of marriage even if it is not literally true. There are no equivalent words for men committing the same offense. The slurs say that women are less than men, and their rights and humanity do not need to be respected. This can “justify” further offensive language, bullying, threats, unwanted touching, and assaults. Yoho’s language also leads to domestic violence, rape, and murder. Yoho increased the danger to his wife and daughters and increased the risk to all women.
Domestic violence and sexual assault are the most underreported crimes in our society. The tolerance of offensive language discourages reports and convictions. Objectifying women encourages men to treat women’s value as only having to do with their body parts and having sex. The sexism and risks undermine the ability of women to reach their full potential. The United States spends trillions of dollars every year to tolerate men’s domestic violence and sexual assault. Most of the financial cost is for health care and crime.
The most significant harm is from our loss of humanity. Yoho’s words diminish his reputation, and to the extent, we tolerate his behavior, reduce respect for our country. It is disappointing that Republicans haven’t rushed to denounce his behavior. Offensive, sexist slurs should not be a partisan issue. I work on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. Good people are in pain every day because of our tolerance for abuse. We ruin the lives of women and children, and in some cases, end their lives, because we don’t shun men who act like Yoho. There is no benefit to allowing indecency.
Now, you are back in the bar, and someone makes a Yoho comment. What is your response?