Sexual Assault Survivor or Victim? Why Both Labels Are Valid
Updated: Apr 20
Content warning: This article references sexual violence.
According to RAINN, every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. This could be why the conversation about identifying as a sexual assault survivor 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” continues to circulate on social media, television, and in newspapers. On Instagram alone, there are over 200,000 posts with the #believesurvivors hashtag. You may also notice an increasing number of women speaking up about their sexual trauma.
What happens if you don’t identify as a survivor?
Many people aren’t sure about which, if any, label they want to use for themselves. This is understandable, especially if you staunchly believe in the saying that “words are powerful”.
You may also be ambivalent about labeling yourself because of the stereotypes attached to the words ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’. A literature review conducted to explore the victim vs survivor narrative within the context of rape found that rape victim literature focuses on oppression, while rape survivor literature connotes empowerment.
The media plays a major role in how some messages are internalized, which in turn influences the way we communicate and interact with one another. Therefore, it is important to understand the importance some people attach to their label.
Sexual Assault Survivor or Victim?
More than 1 in 3 women and one in four men in the United States have experienced sexual violence. There is no right or wrong answer for which terminology these individuals should use to label themselves. It is entirely up to that individual to own their experience and story using whatever labels feel authentic and true.
Here is a closer look at both labels and what they could mean.
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 is 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 should be complete and negative symptoms no longer persist.
Sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and rape is a crime. Therefore, anyone who experiences it is a victim of that crime; there’s nothing they could have done to prevent sexual violence from happening to them. However, there is some shame for being a rape victim whereas being a victim of other crimes, like identity theft, for example, does 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.
Merriam Webster defines ‘victim’ as:
“One that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions.”