Updated: Apr 20, 2021
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.”
This definition doesn’t reflect an individual who is weak, defeated, or at fault. 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 responsibility back on 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 culture that shames and silences victims of sexual violence. 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 word could be used. Law enforcement professionals may lean towards using victim for someone reporting a sexual assault, while an advocacy group may use survivor. On the other hand, an individual may say, "I was a victim of rape, and I'm a survivor of sexual assault".
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. Don’t feel like you have to be politically correct; you have the right to identify as you choose.
The important thing is that we listen to each other's truths, without shame, and doubt but with empathy, 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, contact me to schedule a consultation. Therapy can help you work through your feelings, process your experiences, explore different levels of healing, and live the full life you deserve.
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.