Warnings: this article is about the use of the word survivor, so covers some issues around abuse/violence, dealing with its impacts, and how others respond. I will not describe any abuse or other violence, but various victim-blaming and other negative responses are described in order to be refuted.
You may have noticed that some people, especially feminists, use the word ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’ to refer to people who have experienced some form of gendered violence,* most commonly, rape, domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse, or prostitution. This article will explain why this is, the context and history of the term, and some limitations.
[Disclaimer: I write this from the position of having experienced certain forms of gendered violence, but none particularly extreme or the ones named above. I have the privilege of not being described by society as a ‘victim’, therefore I do not claim the word survivor for myself. So I write this as a privileged outsider, who may well say oppressive things. Please call me on stuff if you feel confident to. Similarly, I’m going to touch on how these issues affect women with various identities, some of which I share, some of which I don’t: if you know better, please correct me.]
‘Survivor’ is an excellent replacement for ‘victim’ primarily because it avoids the problems which ‘victim’ carries with it, in both social and psychological contexts. In particular, it communicates a fundamental passivity which is both inaccurate and damaging. At the same time, it carries connotations of blame: that the passivity is some how chosen.
Not a victim: social contexts
[warning for victim-blaming and other shitty responses]
So victim, the more ‘mainstream’ word, is used by lots of people. The most common place I come across it is the police, and the media, those two famous bastions of resistance to rape culture.* On the one hand, its use often shows one positive thing: it at least recognises that someone committed a crime against this person, and that they were injured by it. Getting this recognised is still a struggle: remember when a US lawmaker wanted women** reporting rape in the criminal justice system to be referred to as ‘accusers’ instead of victims? As a society, we are particularly bad at recognising the victimisation of women who are coded as hypersexual, and therefore ‘unrapeable’, by our cultural norms, e.g. women who are poor, young, black, trans, prostituted, and/or bi. (Side note: hypersexualisation is one thing society expects of all those groups, but they all have different extra myths and oppressions that further add to their being seen as unrapeable.) So when ‘victim’ is used, we know they’re getting at least one thing right.
However, the word ‘victim’ is extremely disempowering. It is a noun which identifies a person solely according to what someone did to them: nothing about what they did to resist or respond, or anything about any other identity they may have. In this way, it also plays into our ideas about what a victim really looks like: passive, perfectly compliant with police and prosecutors’ demands, not angry, sexually pure (which isn’t just about her history, it’s about her race, class and other identities and what meanings are attached to them). This fits well with the standard treatment of ‘victims’ in the courts and media: investigate the crime by interrogating her to discover any deviation from this ideal, which must necessarily mean it wasn’t rape. These problems aren’t caused by the word victim, of course, but it fits right in to this social context, and helps it to continue.
It also encourages others to see people who’ve experienced violence as pitiful, helpless and in need of rescuing. Clearly not capable of making their own decisions and looking after their own interests, they need a ‘normal’ person, a non-victim, to take control and look after them. Hence the commonness of storylines where victims are coerced into (supposedly) therapeutic activities (e.g this House episode where House manipulates a woman into talking in detail about the rape, and this Desperate Housewives episode where a husband pressures his wife into getting counselling for the impacts of childhood sexual abuse). (Note: do not do this. Ever. Even if you mean well. Please leave a comment if you would like me to write an article on how to support people who are dealing with the impacts of sexual abuse and/or other violence).
Deeply tied into this air of pitifulness is the idea that victimhood is somehow chosen. This may extend to blame for the violence itself (e.g. ‘why didn’t you fight back?’***), or blame for their experiencing its on-going psychological impacts (e.g. ‘I can’t help her when she’s being such a victim’). These attitudes have a clear overlap with myths and prejudices about mental unwellness, and some aspects of physical unwellness, in general. One of the reasons it’s so common is because people want to believe in a just world, where they have control over the niceness of their life: believing that people are happy and healthy if they chose to be and work on it is a protective belief. But that doesn’t excuse it. Needless to say, expression of these attitudes, and the support which using ‘victim’ lends to them, is really harmful to people dealing with the impacts of violence, and props up rape culture in general.
These connotations of pitifulness and passivity can be particularly hurtful for women with identities already seen as those things by society, e.g. women who are disabled and/or young. Perhaps white women also belong in this category, I’m not sure. The connotations of blame for mental dis-ease and general screwed-up-ness can be used against women with mental illnesses particularly powerfully, and women who do things which are pathologised in a victim-type way, e.g. women who are submissive BDSM practitioners and/or adherents to certain religious traditions and practices.
Not a victim: psychological contexts
These meanings of passivity and blame which accompany ‘victim’ should also be avoided because they are inaccurate. Both during and after sexual abuse and other violence, women use active strategies to reduce, avoid and recover from the harm done to them. For instance, some people use dissociation* to limit their contact with the experience and reduce the damage done by it. Other may imagine a better life, plot revenge, or keep some aspect of their life and thoughts safe from the abuser. Even what may look like a passive response is usually a crucial survival mechanism. (See the link in the *** note at the bottom).
An important part of dealing with the impacts of sexual violence is honouring these often-ignored acts of resistance. Many women’s organisations work along these lines, treating the people who come to them not as an ‘object’ that has been acted upon negatively, and must be acted upon positively in treatment, but as an ‘agent’ who has already responded effectively to violence, and can continue to. Other crucial parts of working with people in this way include revealing and rejecting language which, under rape culture,
“(a) conceals violence, (b) obscures and mitigates perpetrator responsibility, (c) conceals victims’ resistance, and (d) blames or pathologizes victims.”
From Coates & Wade’s article Telling It Like It Isn’t: Obscuring Perpetrator Responsibility for Violent Crime, published in 2004 in the journal Discourse & Society. (Or, more accurately, I got it from Wikipedia.)
So instead of phrases like “unwanted sex” we say ‘rape’; instead of “she was raped”, we say ‘he raped her”; instead of “why didn’t you tell anyone?” we ask, “how did you cope with that?”; and instead of seeing psychological distress as ‘effects’ of abuse, we see them as responses following abuse, which are often useful coping strategies.* And instead of ‘victim’ we say ‘survivor’.
These ideas are common in feminist organisations working against rape and abuse. One place where these ideas have been solidified into more respected professional practice is in Response-Based Therapy.
Where does this come from?
Using the term ‘survivor’ to refer to people who experienced abuse probably arose from the early radical feminist activism against rape and childhood sexual abuse. Kathleen Barry has been called the first person to advocate for this usage in the late 1970s , but the term itself cannot be attributable to a single woman, especially working in movement where collective action was so crucial. So, right from the start of the feminist ‘discovery’ of rape, domestic abuse and child sexual abuse, when radical feminists set up the first refuges, held the first speak-outs and first joined together in consciousness-raising groups, the agency and power of women was recognised and highlighted.
So, for instance, Barry writes (in Female Sexual Slavery, 1979) that before widespread rape and abuse began to be recognised, it was essential to prove the non-complicity of women in these acts, and hence passivity was stressed, and the label ‘victim’ claimed. However, due to the meanings which a pro-rape culture attaches to that term (see above), the ‘victim’ can become a term to describe a person’s identity and attitude, and “in doing so, contributed to the continued objectification of that person which had commenced with the act of sexual violence.” (From Breaking the Silence: Restorative Justice and Child Sexual Abuse by Shirley Jülich, which is downloadable as a PDF.) Instead, Barry advocated using the term survivor, which acknowledged the agent-hood of the child or woman, and the strategies they had constructed to resist and deal with the impacts of sexual violence.
Today, the word survivor is much more common, and this is largely due to the efforts of feminists working against violence to publicise the word and our need for it, especially those working in Rape Crisis centres and similar feminist organisations.
One of the common arguments within feminism is around the victimhood of women. It is usual to hear some feminists criticise radical and/or second wave and/or violence-focused feminists of clinging unproductively to victim status, and denying women’s power and agency (e.g. Naomi Wolf’s idea of ‘victim feminism’ vs ‘power feminism’. I hope I’ve shown here that this is a completely strawfeminist.
At the end of the day, the word survivor, is, like victim, a noun. It describes a person according to their experiences of (and resistance to) violence, and nothing more: it is one-dimensional. I have heard some women who have experienced violence reject it for these reasons: they felt that it limited and patronised them. So I try to use phrases like ‘women who have survived childhood sexual abuse’ where possible.
Another limitation is that the replacement of ‘victim’ with ‘survivor’ can be seen as a complete rejection of ‘victim.’ Instead, the word victim should be able to be reclaimed by anyone who feels it applies to them. Stripped of the additional meanings it is given by a kyriarchal and pro-rape culture, it simply means one who had violence done to them, and as such must be freely available to be used by anyone in that position. More than that, we need to completely change our culture so that victim no longer carries those negative connotations, because we recognise women’s strength and lack of culpability in crimes committed against them. Rejecting ‘victim’ and everything that goes with it can be particularly harsh on people with identities such that society expects them to be strong, e.g. black women (see this excellent post).
Something to beware of with ‘survivor’ language is the ‘victim-to-survivor’ discourse and how that can play right into the problems I covered in section one. I think this is too big an issue to deal with in one paragraph here, so I’m saving it for a future post.
The last limitation is a big one: for all that getting language right matters, it is not the be-all and end-all. At the moment, the use of survivor usually marks people who ‘get’ this to some extent from those who don’t, and so can be useful for anyone seeking solidarity or support, but it does not always accompany good understandings or good behaviour. I have heard the term survivor used by: abusers, politicians co-opting the anti-rape movement for their own gain, politicians slashing funding for survivors’ services, and police and other professionals trying to show that they have understood the issues, when they really, really haven’t.
So, what can we actually *do* to make survivors’ lives easier? [This list is intended for people who have not experienced sexual abuse or other violence, but obviously everyone else can join in too if you’d like!] Disclaimer: not everyone is able to do everything on this list, and that’s totally fine. Also, just because you *can* do something, doesn’t mean you should run yourself into the ground doing it. Activist self-care and all that. (More on that story later.)
- Get in contact with your nearest Rape Crisis centre, women’s refuge or other political anti-violence organisation, and find out if they need anything you can give. E.g. campaign against cuts to their funding, fundraise for them, or help to publicise them.
- Go and make sure you’d know how to react if someone disclosed their experiences of abuse or other violence to you. Read everything you can, taking care of your own emotional health as you do. When you’re confident you wouldn’t be a wombat, and have supported a couple of people in this way, start asking the question.
- Look for online activism: sign some petitions, send emails to MPs, share things, write complaints.
- Find out if your workplace/campus has a decent sexual assault policy, and if not, campaign for one. (Get in touch with the women’s branch of your union if you think this might get you in trouble).
- Talk about these things. Once you’ve read/talked enough to be angry, and confident of some facts, start spreading the word. Get into arguments. Online or off. Bear witness to rape culture and women’s experiences of victimisation and secondary victimisation. Doing so won’t just (hopefully) persuade a few ignorant people, it will let any survivors listening know that someone’s on their side.
*Other vocab I use in this area, like gendered violence, rape culture, coping strategies or dissociation could be the topic of another article like this: would you read such an article?
**Referring to people who have experienced sexual abuse, rape and other gendered violence I use female and gender-neutral pronouns and nouns interchangeably. I use female ones because persuading people that the vast majority of people targeted by rapists and abusers are female is a struggle we have not yet won. I use gender-neutral ones to acknowledge that, because these crimes are a cause and consequence of inequality, other inequalities are relevant, so for example, boys, and men who are imprisoned, disabled and/or queer are targeted as well. It also includes non-binary gender and agender people for similar reasons.
***This is never an acceptable question to ask someone who has experienced rape or other violence; it is unacceptable to interrogate their behaviour rather than the attacker’s. However, it may be useful to point out that there are many social and interpersonal limits on people’s resistance to such attacks, such as not wanting loved ones to hear, and having been taught (generally or specifically, by the attacker or by others) not to resist authority. Beyond that, there are often also physiological limits on physical resistance, which kick in regardless of what the person decides: you’ve probably heard of the neurological responses to threats known as ‘fight or flight’, but you may not have heard of the other three responses known as ‘freeze’, ‘flop’, or ‘friend’.