Women's Freedom Center: Victims, survivors and what's in a name

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In a recent radio interview about our work, a respectful host made a good comment, then instantly stopped to apologize for having just used the word victim instead of survivor. The apology wasn't necessary, but the discussion that followed raised some interesting questions. First, what might be shifting around this particular word? And more importantly, what does it say about a culture if even the name for victim can sometimes sound like a slur?

Not everyone hears it that way, of course, and each survivor has the right to use whichever word feels appropriate for them. As advocates we follow their lead, and use whatever language they're using themselves. Yet we do often alternate these terms, in conversations and this monthly column, and for good reason: No new label suddenly alters someone's worth or potential. Victim or survivor, each is still a whole human being who now also happens to have experienced trauma.

Nonetheless, there's been a move in recent years away from the word 'victim,' usually by victims of domestic or sexual violence, given how harmful attitudes have seeped into language — here it's not social concern, but callousness. "Don't be such a victim," and "victim mentality" are just two examples of this derogatory trend, aimed at denying someone compassion, attention, or even credibility if they've been hurt. It's no wonder that victims or anyone else might be quick to ditch that loaded word.

Significantly, it's less the word, than who and what it applies to that's brought about this change. There's been much-needed attention recently to how racism still impacts our culture, raising the crucial question: whose suffering do we even take seriously? And while domestic and sexual violence can happen to anyone, victims are overwhelmingly women, which underscores how sexism too still functions: Because the negative take on victims is not universal. Most random acts of violence don't taint their victim by making them suspect. For instance, getting robbed by a stranger, or hit by a drunk driver still tends to afford people some empathy. But getting raped by a date, or hit by your partner can elicit quite a range of ignorant and awful responses — in other words, victim-blaming. Even being raped by a stranger can bring on intense scrutiny and shaming to the very person who suffered that assault, which isn't just cruel, it's aiding a criminal.

Compounding the social stigma around victimhood, there are other myths at work too. Survivors themselves certainly get the message that society would like them to "just get on with things," and pretty quickly, not only for their own sake but for ours. Victim may sound teary or messy still, and vulnerable, whereas survivor can sound cleaned up and easier to be with, and therefore, to be. A victim might also be seen as more passive in the face of abuse, while a survivor sounds vigorous and resourceful.

But the truth is, these two categories are bogus. Any one of us might suddenly find ourselves in such a plight, no matter our own actions, history, etc. And if that happens, no label should somehow mark us as less deserving of a humane response. Living through abuse or rape is incredibly frightening, and is never a passive experience, no matter how it's survived. Nor is the crime itself ever "provoked," because it can't be. Someone always intends that harm first, and then commits it. Victims do the best they can at the time, so frankly, either word applies equally to those who manage to stay alive. Getting through is ordeal enough; getting respect should go without saying.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham and Southern Windsor County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at Women's Freedom Center and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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