by Rachael Kaufman
Numerous campaigns, activist groups, and domestic violence and sexual assault agencies (1) choose to use the term survivor in messaging about individuals who experience sexual violence. Rather than emphasizing the actual act the individual experiences by using the word victim, the word survivor puts the emphasis onto the individual’s life after the assault and their (2) ability to reclaim their power after having lost it. It also shows a change from victim-blaming language, as using the word survivor to describe these individuals diverts the conversation from talking about what the victim could have done to prevent their assault. Beyond just talking about the individual, the use of “survivor” represents an ideology about how the world should think about individuals affected by sexual violence and how those individuals should think of themselves.
For these reasons and more, many individuals use the word survivor to define themselves and their experience. Sady Doyle explains that “we’re called survivors because we’re still here.” For her, the word survivor perpetuates an important message, in spite of the traumatic events she experienced, she is still alive and is actively living. She emphasizes the power in understanding that surviving is an accomplishment after experiencing a sexually violent crime, and using the word survivor has allowed her to have power over her experience, knowing she “survived” it. Some people prefer the term and survivor over victim, and they appreciate what the word has done at large for creating a safe and supportive space for survivors. By adopting this word, these individuals can claim membership to a growing support network that denounces sexually violent crimes and strives to combat the issue.
However, using one word to define a diverse community of individuals who experience different forms of sexual violence and process their experiences in a variety of ways can prove problematic. For many, the word “survivor” is a powerful term; however, some believe this overarching language is not the best way to talk about all individuals who experience sexual violence.
In an essay entitled “Live Through This,” Charlotte Shane disagrees with the use of the term survivor. She explains how this term supports only one narrative where individuals who experience sexual violence “wear the badge of ‘survivor’…because we [survivors] are forever changed by this assault.” This social narrative emphasizes how individuals (mainly women) are defined by their experience of sexual assault , as this crime is viewed as the worst thing that can happen to a woman. Furthermore, only using the term survivor can perpetuate a narrative that there is a uniform emotional response to sexual violence, and a sexually violent experience lives with the individual forever. While all individuals who experience sexual violence may not agree with Shane, Shane does articulate how the use of one word simplifies and homogenizes a complex and variable experience.
In her personal essay, Emilie Morgan asks “please don’t call me a survivor…I am not a victim either. I am just a woman – a statistic.” Another writer, Hilary Lorenzo defines survivor as “a kind of blanket misnomer…a scarlet stamp on my forehead to rob me of another piece of myself.” These statements reinforce the claim that one word can simply not encompass the complexities of experiencing and dealing with sexual violence, and survivors are first and foremost people with different experiences and preferences of how they are treated after an assault.
When considering the opinions individuals have who experience sexual violence, it is important to question whether one term should be used to define all individuals who have an experience involving sexual violence. One helpful, trauma-informed approach is meeting the person where they are in the processing of their experience in order to avoid defining their experience for them.
It is important to use a survivor’s own words to speak about their experience. This places the power into the hands of that individual. Due to the nature of sexual violence, individuals who experience these crimes have gotten their power taken away from them. While we may think the term “survivor” is helping an individual regain their power through this language, it can be more powerful to let them define their experience with and on their own terms. Through this practice, we can begin to empower survivors of sexual assault and create a supportive community to help them heal.
If you or a loved one have experienced sexual assault and want help, you may call the Greater Richmond Regional Hotline at 804-612-6126 for free, 24/7 and confidential assistance and resources.
Rachael Kaufman is a Government Advocacy Intern with YWCA of Richmond where she strives to help those who experience sexual and domestic violence get the support and help they deserve. She is passionate about working with college campus policies and education programs that aim to eliminate barriers for people talking about and reporting sexual assault and harassment. Rachael graduated from the College of William and Mary and is currently pursuing her Master of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Notes from the editor:
(1) YWCA of Richmond uses the word survivor as an overarching term to refer to individuals who have survived sexual, domestic or intimate partner violence. In individual interactions with clients and community members, we mirror the language chosen by the individual as their definition.
(2) YWCA of Richmond uses gender-neutral pronouns, using they/their/them as both singular and plural.