Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Neither Victim Nor Survivor

One of the hardest things when I go to my sessions each week is the language used to describe me. I wrote at length about this in March, in a post titled "The Pen Is Mightier..." and how the wrong words can destroy us. I wrote about terms like "courageous", "brave" and "feminist" and how uncomfortable and loaded they seem to be, and how they chip away my self-worth rather than building it.

But this post - which I have been sitting on a little bit - is more specific and deals with two bits of language in particular, both of which feel unrelatable and wrong. These words are "victim" and "survivor".

I don't think I have to argue the case against "victim", a word that has long been avoided and replaced by different groups working with those who have experienced sexual assault and other gender-based violence. Because these groups and the counselling process are supposed to facilitate a journey of empowerment, giving control back when it has been ripped away. "Victim" is loaded with connotations of being passive, helpless, unable to change one's own situation.

But my reasons for hating the word go further. Because those people who think of me as a "victim" are the ones who look at me with pity, with sympathy, with horror and disgust. You can read it all in their faces. When I arrive at the women's centre on a Tuesday night and I have to tell someone that I'm "going upstairs", I see it every time. I never say that I'm going to the Rape Crisis Centre. I don't need to. Everyone knows what "upstairs" means. It's horrific to see my own pain reflected back at me like that, and frustrating when they start molly-coddling because of something I had no chance to control.

And that's the other reason I hate the word "victim". Because as easy as it is to say that I had no chance to control it, there's still a level of self-blame that makes the idea of being helpless unfathomable. How can you be a "victim" if you still believe it's your own fault somewhere inside?

But "survivor", despite what people think, is just as bad. Because surviving is powerful. Surviving takes strength, courage and determination, all ideals which seem so alien. And surviving isn't me. And despite all the positive connotations of "survivor", it still has that eternal implication of sorrow and trauma, even if it has been or is being overcome. 

I don't want to be a survivor, I want to be me.

This, really, is the heart of the problem. Because whether you label someone a "victim" or a "survivor", you are reducing them to that single event and defining them by it. You are defining me by it. 

I already feel defined enough by what happened, trapped by it and the most ridiculous parts of my life forever shaped and tainted by the experience. I don't need your reminder too. There's no point pretending that rape hasn't changed my life in many ways, but my ability to move on from it is going to be limited the longer that others define me by it, whether in the context of "victim" or "survivor".

I dislike writing in the first person like this, but people need to stop thinking that blanket definitions work. They really don't. And it would be hypocritical and wrong of me to generalise about how other people feel about "victim" and "survivor". One of the things about this experience is that we all react differently, according to our own personal experiences, histories and personalities. Just as there is no right or wrong way to respond to violence, there's no right or wrong in the way we respond to the language.

So the natural conclusion would be to find an alternative word to use, something that works contextually without the connotations of "victim" or "survivor", but all I can offer is the phrase that my counsellor and I seem to have settled on; "someone who has experienced....". It is not loaded, there are no suppositions about my ability to cope, but then it involves facing the exact and painful words each and every time. 

Maybe what they say is true. There are no correct labels, only people.

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