Recently I was watching a rerun of Law & Order: SVU and I saw a “rape advocate” actively discourage the police from using the term victim to refer to a woman who had been raped. She emphatically insisted that the word survivor be used instead— as if victim was a curse. This whole scene struck me as odd and raised a question in my mind: When did victim become a dirty word?
As a person who has healing from years of sexual violence, I have some perspective on this. I used the term survivor for a time. For a time, I felt it fit where I was in my process. I think that’s because that’s all I was doing— surviving. I was suffering from a severe eating disorder, cutting myself, and abusing pills. I did those things to help me through the PTSD, through the grueling work I was doing in therapy surrounding the rape and sexual abuse. Through this work, I became stronger. Those self-destructive behaviors abated. At a certain point I was strong enough to understand something that I hadn’t before: that I was, in fact, a victim. Holding on to the identity of survivor had been a defense mechanism. As long as I was a survivor, I could hang onto the idea that I had some control or power during the sexual violence committed against me. I could hold onto the thought that I might have been able to change something, to do something to stop the perpetrators, to have told someone what was happening. Those thoughts kept me believing in some corner of my mind that I had been partially responsible. It was not until I understood that I was a victim— that I had, in fact, been completely powerless and had all control taken away— that I understood that it was truly not my fault. It wasn’t until I understood my victimization that I let go of the illusion that I could have changed anything, stopped the perpetrators, fought any harder. Because the truth is this: I was a child. Children can neither consent to sexual acts nor prevent adults who are determined to commit them against them. Children are always victims. The last time I was raped was by a stranger when I was sixteen; I was not responsible then either. I did not ask to be raped. I did not consent. The fact that I laid there without physically fighting him is not the same as consent, which I used to believe. I was a victim.
I believe the way we use to word victim right now has become extremely detrimental to those trying to recover from sexual violence. It’s treated a lesser status, something ugly one needs to get past on the way to reaching survivor status. We say victim as if it equates with weakness: only people who are weak can be victimized, while the strong survive. It seems there’s a stigma around the word victim and people shy away from using it because in our culture it connotes frailty, helplessness, shame. I propose that the word victim connotes having suffered an attack or trauma through no fault of one’s own. And one can be a victim or have been victimized and still be empowered, still come from a place of strength to say, “This wasn’t my fault. I’m rebuilding from here.” This impulse to use the word survivor over victim moves us away from the essential truth that in that moment of the trauma the person was powerless, was helpless. And we don’t like to think about that. Because if we know someone to whom that happened, then we ourselves are vulnerable to becoming victims of violence. And that terrifies us.
So why do we need a special status post-sexual violence? Why is this crime different? We don’t hear about people being “robbery survivors” or “car-jacking survivors.” People who experience other crimes have no problem calling themselves victims. Why is sexual violence different?
Obviously, it is different. The way sexual violence is treated as a crime in this country is unavoidably divergent. Sexual violence is less reported, less prosecuted, and has a lower conviction rate than any other crime. More than two-thirds of sexual assaults go unreported, and ninety-seven percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. There’s a shame and a stigma surrounding sexual violence that keep those numbers in a holding pattern, preventing people from speaking up when it happens to them. There’s also rape culture, which exists not only on social media and college campuses but in the police departments, hospitals, and prosecutors’ offices that have first contact with victims of sexual violence. It is not at all an uncommon experience for a victim to be blamed and questioned in inappropriate ways by the police, to be re-traumatized by the rape-kit examination, or to be battered by a district attorney who wants to get the details of testimony perfect. With the way victims are treated in those environments— the ones that are supposed to be delivering “justice”— it’s no wonder people choose not to report. It’s no wonder we feel like we need a new name after all of this, to distance ourselves from the horror. In some ways, I think we created the survivor moniker as a psychological barrier, a way to say look: I’m past all of that. In other ways I think we did it to distinguish sexual violence as the particular kind of trauma it is; much different than having your car or wallet stolen, rape is life-shattering betrayal. Perhaps we need the word survivor.
It’s also curious to me that we only use the word victim in the term “victim-blaming”; we never hear about someone “survivor-blaming.” Perhaps this is because, again, we associate victims with weakness, and therefore culpability. Or on the flipside, because being blamed is another way of being victimized. The way we talk about rape in this culture in general is pretty disturbing; terms like “nonconsensual sex” exist, which don’t even make sense. There’s sex and there’s rape. If sex is nonconsensual, it’s rape. I’m not sure where the confusion is with that. The media is one of the worst entities with this, still using words like “seduced” in items about sexual assault. We have a long way to go.
Language is powerful. Choosing how to refer to oneself after experiencing sexual violence is a personal decision, and it can change as the person goes through their healing process. For me, saying I am a survivor keeps it in the present as opposed to saying I was a victim, which puts it in the past. I was a victim. I’m not anymore. I don’t want the title of survivor because it keeps me tied to those experiences. They are part of my story but they are not the whole story. They’re part of who I am but they are not who I am. I am so, so much more than this. So is everyone who has lived through sexual violence, no matter how they choose to say it.
For more sexual assault statistics or to get help with issues surrounding sexual assault, please visit the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network or call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs without fear of the future.