Most articles, arguments and public discourse appears to center around an interchangeable use of the terms gender-based violence, sexual violence and sexualized violence. Though the understanding of what is to be conveyed in most instances appears to transcend the apparent error, it is vital to iron out creases in the language we use to project our narratives. This is especially because the instances of gender-based violence, sexual violence and sexualized violence are distinct, and our strategies to respond to them must therefore be distinct – so as to be sensitised to the distinct narratives involved.
The root of the difference in terminology lies in starting with the meanings of sex and gender. Sex refers to the biological or anatomical sex identity that is ascribed at birth. Although most often it has been considered a binary, sex is most certainly beyond the binary, incorporating within its fold the male, female and intersex identities. Gender or gender identity refers to individual and cultural understanding of behaviours, roles, feelings and activities, and is essentially a social construct. Gender is beyond the binary, and includes a spectrum that incorporates more gender identities than we can count. Its fluidity also reflects how much of a dynamic identity it is. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s sexual identity in relation to the gender to which they are attracted. Again, this is a spectrum of identities that are not confined to the demanding standards of heteronormativity.
Bearing in mind these specific definitions, let’s look at how each of the terms referring to specific kinds of violence are to be used.
Sexual violence refers to any sexual act or any attempt to obtain a sexual act by coercion, or outright violence. Essentially the violence in itself is sexual in nature – rape, molestation, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault and the like, and therefore the target is chosen either on the ground of sexual or gender identity or sexual orientation. It violates the bodily and psychological integrity of an individual by using acts or verbiage that is centred around a sexual identity. For instance, forced sexual intercourse is rape – where the act is in itself a sexual act, but obtained without consent, or with violence or with coercion. Sexual violence is not confined to any particular sex assignment or gender identity, or sexual orientation. In a nutshell, sexual violence is violence carried out through a sexual means or violence using sex as an act.
Gender-based violence, on the other hand, is violence of any sort that is carried out with gender as the basis of discrimination. The reference to the term “gender-based” alludes to the expression of power inequalities between the genders. Oftentimes, because of the perception of gender as a binary, gender-based violence is interpreted as a case of violence against women – but, it really encompasses violence by any gender against any gender – with gender itself being the basis of discrimination. For instance, transphobia and outright violence against a person who identifies as a trans man or trans woman is a case of gender-based violence. It is unclear scientifically as to what causes gender, and the dynamism of gender inherently presupposes that there are more than the binary, when it comes to gender identities. Naturally, therefore, there should be a comprehensive understanding that gender-based violence is a spectrum. Definitively speaking, there is no scientific explanation for what causes gender, and there isn’t essentially a necessary connection between one’s gender identity and sexual orientation. However, owing to heteronormativity and alignment of gender and sexual orientation identities with what is socially and culturally “acceptable” as an expectation of each sex and gender identity, sexual orientation is understood as a function of gender – and therefore, gender-based violence has come to be used as an umbrella term. It refers to an overarching term that refers to violence carried out targeting sexuality. It can be carried out through sexual means or by any other means, but targeting sexuality, or your sexual being. It includes sexual assault, and targets anyone whose sexual identity does not conform to heteronormative standards or binary standards. Sexualized violence individuals irrespective of whether or not they have been victimized because of social expectations of gender. For instance, violence specifically emanating from a space of homophobia and targeting a person with a sexual orientation that is not heterosexual or a person with a gender identity that is outside the binary framework amounts to gender-based violence.
On the other hand, sexualized violence refers to violence emanating from violence of a non-sexual nature, but used in a sexual context or in expression of power-based inequalities between sex and gender identities. It could manifest in the form of using sexuality for the display of power and violence – and this manifests on all levels – in private exchanges in the form of sexism to violent behaviour to structural power and structural violence. An example of the former is violence such as beating or punching – i.e., a non-sexual form of violence used in a sexualized fashion against another gender or sex or sexual orientation identity. An example of the latter is patriarchy and misogyny – where social structures subscribe to and constantly endorse the power dynamic that puts toxic masculinity at the top of the hegemonic ladder.