The first time I came across the word survivor in the context of sexual violence, I was 17, browsing the internet for information on child sexual abuse. I was trying to understand my own experiences. I came across a website with information, resources and a Survivors’ Forum to share personal stories. There was a lengthy explanation of why the word survivor was used instead of victim. It explained how the word victim was disempowering, and how the word victim would forever embed me in my past experiences, whereas the word survivor would change how I viewed myself and would also alter how people thought of me. Survivors would heal, victims would not. Survivors would not live in shame, victims would be crushed under the weight of their shame. I decided that day that I was a survivor and I shared my story on the Survivors’ Forum.
I modeled what a survivor looked like in my imagination. A survivor was strong. Being a survivor meant that the violence and violation did not break me. It meant that I had accepted and nursed my wounds, but that they did not debilitate me. It meant that I talked and I talked and I shared my experiences and that I sought help from numerous therapists. What happened to me was my burden alone to carry; it wasn’t society’s or my family’s, it was mine alone. And because I was a survivor I would take ownership of my future and heal. As a survivor, I would carry myself with elegant poise and grace as I moved on and away from experiences I had had no control over.
My experience of the word victim is much more multi-tiered. My being reacts to that word on two levels and I believe both warrant that I delve into them separately. The first was responding to the word ‘victim’ as it became part of my personal individual experience; victim as we think of it in relationship to survivor in the context of sexual violence. The other experience of the word ‘victim’ was more of my experience as part of an actor in the global collective of non-white feminists. So I would think of myself as me and (the violence to) my body on the one hand, and on the other hand I would think of me as part of a larger group of women who shared a similar experience. In both cases the word ‘victim,’ whether uttered or implied, was a filthy word. I will explain each in more detail.
Using the word ‘victim’ in relation to myself as an individual meant that I hadn’t survived my experience, that I had not emerged from the pain and that I had let them destroy me. I thought that if I stopped for a minute, that I would lose control;, I would let these past experiences dictate who I was and what happened to me. I would let them take something more away from me. Being a victim meant that I was a weak person, and I didn’t want to be a weak person because I had felt so powerless so many times, I felt weak and unable to even attempt to guard my body. I couldn’t accept the word victim.
The word ‘victim’ as used in the wider political arena is something that most non-white or non-privileged queer feminists will react very strongly against. When liberal white feminists champion or appropriate our causes, when they tell our stories in a way that paints us as weak, exploited or needing to be saved, my body seethes with anger and I tend to scream at texts, “Fuck this, I don’t need some white privileged bitch telling me what a victim I am, which will possibly result in uninvited interventions that are just as disempowering as patriarchy itself”. So accepting the word victim in this sense would mean I was a bad feminist.
Four years later, when I was raped, I still refused to call myself a victim, and for another 14 years I refused to call it rape. Rape meant that once again, I was rendered powerless, that I was a victim and I was weak, and so after the assault I spent 14 years surviving, rarely thinking of that evening, telling myself that control was not taken away from me, but that I had ceded control willingly, that I had chosen to be there, that I had not fought back hard enough. I had a unsympathetic support system at the time that echoed back at me what I was thinking—“Why were you there?”—and so I wasn’t ready to be a victim again. After the experience that I had gone through I wanted to move on and not look back, because that is what survivors did: they erased the traces and the scars of their past. I survived so well that not once, over the course of at least ten therapists and ten years of therapy, did I ever have to call it rape, or even really have to talk about it.
Recently, I sat with a new and dear friend complaining about my back injury, how it had flared up the last few days and how I had to be careful with it. She asked me how I had hurt my back. I responded the way I’ve always responded to that question: “I fell,” I said. Most people let it go, but she didn’t; “How did you fall?,” she asked. I felt awkward and took a deep breath and made an attempt to evade her question. She was lying with her face away from me and she turned over to look at me. “I fell on a staircase,” I said. She was getting irritated with me and hurriedly responded, “Yes, how?” I said that this guy had pushed me down on a staircase and that it was a complicated situation, to which she said, “What do you mean, he was trying to rape you?”
I couldn’t hear the word rape. I felt waves of panic, confusion, loss of control and weakness take over. “No it wasn’t rape,” I screamed at her, “and I am so sick of fucking people trying to tell me what my experience was, I wasn’t raped and I am not a victim!”. We talked for hours that day, and one question that she raised that really stood out to me: “Why are we expected, as women, to have say something more than just no? Why are we given the responsibility to have to fight off unwanted advances?”
The truth is, I am a victim, I was made to be powerless and what happened to my body I didn’t choose, and the physical and psychological effects are mine alone to suffer and mine alone to heal or at least accept and live with. Regardless of whether I called myself a victim or a survivor. I have the right to be tired and not able to go on. I have the right to want everything to come to a halt and stand against what happened to me. I have the right to be scared and have panic attacks, I have the right to my rage, I have the right to fall apart because these things really break you, and I have the right to not want to take responsibility for things I did not choose. These experiences break your sense of control over your body, these experiences between men and women happen because we are women and these experiences to our bodies are meant to define and limit our space of possible actions. I want to admit that I am broken and I want to be angry and I am not waiting for pseudo-feminist men to tell me that I need to calm down.
You might be thinking that what I am saying seems confused and disjointed, and you are right, it is, because that is the complex nature of the survivor versus victim narrative as I have come to experience it. The point I am making here, through a disjointed personal ethnography of rape, is not about what word to choose to describe someone’s, or one’s own, experiences of sexual violence, but to realize that there is a limitation to the effects of language and discourse on the transformation of a lived experience. The over-emphasis on the power of these words to reshape reality in itself becomes a limitation of truly understanding what it means, at the level of our bodies, to exist in a world where the practices and institutions that govern our lives prohibit, restrict and violate the autonomy of our beings, because we are women. We are cornered with our backs to the wall, which means that our understanding of the threat against us and the degree of our dehumanization, as well as our ability to defend our spaces and autonomy is also restricted. The agency over our choices, expressions and bodies, is dictated by someone else, usually with a penis, whether at home or in public spaces or institutions. Some people deny the reality of what that experience is like; others say that that is where we belong, with our backs to the wall, and that that is how much room we are permitted to navigate our choices.
When we describe someone as a survivor or a victim of sexual violence, it is often instrumentalized to shape policy, legislation and action. But our personal experiences cannot be captured only through the languages and practices of laws and policies, and the terminology used at the policy and institutional level cannot be the only identity we adopt following these experiences we undergo. An over-emphasis on choice of words—victim or survivor—takes up room in our discourse, concealing the fact that daily resistance is not a luxury, but is synonymous with self-defense. Let us not forget that as women our backs are REALLY to the wall, whether we are standing with our families, allies or the state, and that our very existence is constantly under threat.