Updated: Apr 3
Content warning: This article references sexual violence.
The conversation about identifying as a survivor of an assault, or a victim cycles around every so often. In the wake of numerous sexual assault accusations, trials, and charges, the phrase and hashtag “Believe Survivors” has shown up everywhere on social media, newspapers, and television. But, what if you do not identify as a survivor? There are many people who are not sure about which, if any, label they want to use for themselves. A common phrase is “Words mean things”. Media plays a major role in how some messages are internalized and in turn influences the way we communicate and interact with one another. Therefore, it is important to understand the significance that some people may hold for either label.
Using the word survivor can be empowering because it means the person is fighting to overcome an adverse experience. Generally, the word ‘survivor’ implies that the person has not given up and are doing all they can to pursue justice, heal, and even advocate for others. On the other hand, some people are hesitant to identify as a survivor because:
They feel their assault was not violent or life threatening.
Survivorship is also used for non-assaultive experiences, such as a house fire or disease.
They are still going through the healing process or have not started the work to heal.
It feels final, as if the healing process is complete and negative symptoms no longer persist.
Sexual assault and rape is a crime. Therefore, anyone who experiences it is a victim of that crime. However, there is some shame for being a rape victim whereas being a victim of other crimes, like identify theft for example, do not hold the same stigma. Think about the sayings, “Playing the victim” and “Stop being a victim”. Using the word victim can draw up words like helpless, weak, fault, unbelievable, defeated, resentment, loathing, and self-pity.
Google defines ‘victim’ as: a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.
For some people, using the victim label is just as empowering as survivor. This is because it recognizes that a crime has taken place and puts the focus back on to the perpetrator of the assault. Highlighting the perpetrators of crime challenges feelings of self-blame that many victims of sexual violence develop.
In a society where consent is not widely taught, understood, or appreciated, we are repeatedly fighting against a rape culture that shames and silences victims of sexual violence. Consider Bill Cosby's sentencing and Brett Kavanaugh's hearing for a second. Many people continue to opine and argue if the victims could be believed, which behaviors should be dismissed as 'boys being boys', and if a crime took place at all. Because of this, some people urge the use of 'victim' to emphasize the occurrence of a criminal act.
As you can see, depending on the situation and the person, either words could be used. Law professionals will lean towards using victim, while an advocacy group may use survivor, and an individual may say, "I was a victim of rape, and I'm now a survivor". I have chosen to use both interchangeably when speaking generally and ask individuals which they would prefer when one-on-one. I encourage anyone who has experienced sexual violence, or any crime for that matter, to use whichever words they like and to remember they can change how they identify at any time they choose. The important thing is that we listen to each other's truths, without shame and doubt but with empathy and support and a drive to pursue justice.
If you are a survivor or victim of gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, childhood sexual abuse, or sexual assault and are considering therapy in St. Louis, MO, contact me to schedule a consultation.
Rafaella Smith-Fiallo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owns Healing Exchange LLC. She specializes in supporting healing after sexual violence, building self-esteem and confidence, and teaching healthy sexuality to individuals, those in relationships, and within supportive group settings. She also cofounded Afrosexology, a sex-positive, pleasure based sexuality education platform.