What does victim/survivor mean, anyway?

One of the most bewildering things about being a victim of crime is all the new language that comes with it. No longer are you just another human being living out their life as best they can. Now you are a ‘victim’, a ‘survivor’, a ‘complainant’, a ‘Crown witness’. All of these words, more so in cases of rape than in any other crime, define roles, carry preconceptions and are weighed down by moral judgements. Each of these roles is accompanied by a series of responsibilities and consequences. Responsibilities that are often vague and confusing, often humiliating and demeaning, often painful and unpleasant. Consequences that are almost always destructive and devastating. Rarely do these roles allow you to define yourself as you would choose. Each of these roles demand that you meet certain requirements, perform certain tasks, submit to external standards, standards that rarely have your best interests at heart.

Much writing about sexual assault focusses on telling those of use who have been affected by it that we needn’t be a victim. That instead, we can be a survivor or perhaps even a ‘thriver’. That we can overcome what has happened to us simply by choice, or willpower or some special combination of actions and decisions. While I see what this sort of work is trying to achieve, and appreciate its intention, I cannot either agree with it or abide by it. We are victims. Sexual assault happens to you, hatefully and deliberately. It is inflicted upon you by someone who knew very well what they were doing, who understood only too well that they were harming another human being in the pursuit of their own satisfaction. What more literal experience of victim could you inflict? It was never our choice to be in this situation and it cannot simply be made otherwise, by us or by others, no matter how determined or well-meaning.

Accepting my ‘victimhood’ has never been easy. It has never sat comfortably with me. Passivity, submission, compliance have never really been the ways I would choose to define myself or how I would like to live. However, in order to make any sense of sexual assault, of what happened to me and the situation that has been forced upon me, I needed to understand the roles of victim and perpetrator. I needed to learn that the only way this situation could come to occur was through the deliberate choices and actions of another, that the only reason I was suffering like this was because somebody knowingly hurt me, chose to perpetrate a crime against me, to make me a victim. That is, quite simply, what happened. The facts. Accepting them is a necessary prerequisite to reclaiming my autonomy, to surviving this event, breaking its binds upon me and beginning my life again, on my terms.

What makes this so difficult to not only envisage, but to actually carry out, is that the experience of being a victim is not limited to that one occasion, to that one time and place, that one set of circumstances, that one individual. Not only was I a victim at the time of the rape but, frequently afterwards, in dealing with the rape, in negotiating the processes of reporting the crime, in receiving medical care and in cooperating with the various organisations who were assisting me, I was put back into a position that felt horrifically close to sacrificial lamb or, at best, helpless dupe. The institutions of the law and law enforcement are the systems that we as a society have put in place to counter and respond to crime, to protect citizens and to enshrine and enact the principles of justice, liberty and equality. And yet, so often and in spite of the dedicated, compassionate, tenacious response of the individuals within these systems with whom I dealt, the pursuit of justice felt far too much like something that would only come at my expense, that would require yet again my destruction for another’s (this time the legal establishment’s) purposes.

Taking an experience of submission, brutality and suffering and turning it into the site of empowerment is no small task, even if it is, literally, a meaning of survival. I suppose that this is what ‘victim/survivor’ means, the importance of maintaining both terms, of linking them to describe this life. One does not come without the other, one does not outweigh the other, one does not replace the other. Rather, they are the conditions, the competing realities of a post-rape existence. What it confirms, what it reveals and describes is the reality of no-closure. This experience doesn’t end, one day, when you just ‘get over it’ and walk away into the sunset to live your life happily ever after. Rather, you keep on surviving it. Each time that experience of victimhood is brought up again, forced upon you to relive, it is outlived and, each experience of surviving victimisation is a confirmation of your strength, your humanity and your dignity. It is a direct rebuttal of the experience of victimhood, a rejection and a dismissal. Each time you pick yourself up, each time you go at it again, you break the rapist’s binds upon you and assert your full and equal right to life on your terms.

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11 Responses to What does victim/survivor mean, anyway?

  1. kati b says:

    Oh my god i’m sooo sorry for you and that you had to go through something like that!!!!!!!! I am writing a report on sexual assault/rape. Can you please suggest a resource for me??

    • Kate Ravenscroft says:

      Hi Kati,

      Thank you for your comment. What sort of resources are you looking for? What is your report about? I may have some suggestions for you, if you can provide a bit more detail.

      Best wishes,

  2. lauren says:

    thankyou for this blog, it is hard to read, i can feel my chest getting tight and my breath fast and shallow. but it’s so incredible to know there is someone feeling that same way as i do. i too have problems with the language given to people who have been raped, everyone says don’t be a victim… you won’t heal if you victimise yourself and think you’re powerless.. but then i don;t feel like a survivor.. i feel disabled and empty and changed somehow. because someone didn’t consider me, didn;t care to consider me or what i wanted, they saw what they wanted and took it. took it while i was vulnerable. it’s still really hard to believe. the nature of rape is so this way… making you question and question yourself, your world, your rights. finding a voice is so important. you’re brave 🙂

  3. Dawn says:

    Yes. You are brave and a beautiful writer who has the ability and compassion to reach into the hearts of so many who cannot find words to express their world in such a way.

    You are gift to the world Kate.

  4. Emily Sue says:

    Wow, I’m glad I found this post. I am a “survivor” of childhood abuse and I’ve struggled with victim/survivor. I wrote about it on my blog and I don’t think anyone really understood what I was getting at…

    • Kate Ravenscroft says:

      Hi Emily Sue,
      Thanks for your comment and link to your site. I read your post and really liked it. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles with these labels. Of course, it’s hard to fit anyone under a label but ‘victim/survivor’ is particularly loaded and is so often used to control us or tell us how to feel… It’s yet another challenge to our autonomy.
      I’m glad you found the post, too and that you passed on yours.
      Thank you,

  5. Verna Byrd says:

    I was raped by a 26 yr old when I was 12, then it happened again when I was 14 ny the same person. I still have a lot of hatred for him. Will I ever get over it?

  6. Pingback: On victim/survivors and (non)survivors | Ruminations

  7. Pingback: On victim/survivors and (non)survivors | ruminations

  8. Dara says:

    I am so sorry for all who experience such a horrible crime. I didn’t realize that it is a never ending torment to all who have been victimized, and are trying hard to survive to the next day every day. My prayers are with you and never loose faith for a better tomorrow.

  9. and says:

    I came here because the recent rise in usage of the word survivor in such contexts bothers me. Even in the Wikipedia page about rape trauma, victims are referred as survivors. The way I see it, the second meaning of the word survivor, has been stretched to include rape and domestic violence in a way to refer to the victim as empowered. We already know that you can survive a pepperoni pizza, etc. but this is a grave happening for which the correct word – victim – should be used.

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