If you have never stopped and pondered the importance of language in our society and how it ultimately reflects, shapes, and reinforces cultural perceptions, take a look at Sherryl Kleinman’s “Why Sexist Language Matters.” It is a fairly quick and accessible read that argues the somewhat obvious but not always stated notion that language affects how we think about any number of subjects.
So when it comes to attaching a label and identifying a group of people like those who have been sexually assaulted or raped, it goes unstated that we have to be careful and deliberate. The term affects how we possibly view the people impacted by violence, our relationship to them, and our potential actions and the resulting consequences.
It does not seem all that unreasonable to use the term ‘victim’ when we consider how our culture and society deals with sexual assault and rape. For many people who go through the ordeal, there is an immense struggle to be recognized by institutions and people in positions of power, such as school administrators, police officers, the justice system, and even friends and family. Indeed, these people and places can further victimize survivors and render them more powerless through accusations and victim blaming, questioning their credibility, and inaction. The harsh and ridiculous experiences survivors are faced with is the stuff worthy of satire.
Yet, even as the term ‘victim’ might ring true and possibly useful in some cases (the “innocence” attached to victims and victim-blaming), we cannot view and label people who have been sexually assaulted and/or raped solely as ‘victims.’ It’s easier to understand the importance of the term ‘survivor’ when you compare its connotations with those of ‘victim.’ Whereas we might think of a victim as helpless, disempowered, and lacking agency, we attribute the opposite to a survivor. With their potential to navigate through adversity, survivors are not trapped in a state of helplessness, and they show it in any number of ways. Whether it is persevering from day to day, seeking help, demanding justice, telling their story, advocating for others in similar situations, or simply living their lives, each survivor displays their unique strengths.
Though we advocate the use of the term ‘survivor,’ both survivor and victim are a part of the narratives of people who have been sexually assaulted or raped. We cannot ignore the fact that to be forcefully subjected to the actions of another person is to be victimized. Ignoring victimhood may unintentionally hide the other half of a survivor’s story, and someone may decide that the term ‘victim’ accurately describes and validates their experiences. Alternatively, someone else may feel that the term ‘survivor’ appropriately reflects their strength in moving forward and healing from trauma. Ultimately, it is up to those who experience violence to make decisions as to how they identify themselves. It is for us as allies and caretakers to respect and support their decisions.
Hieu Nguyen is majoring in Women’s & Gender Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has volunteered at the Center for over a year through marketing, fundraising, and administrative efforts.