Victims vs. Survivors: The harm in defining ourselves as “thriving”

****Trigger Warnings!! This article discusses sexual assault, child molestation and suicide.*****

 

 

I am a victim of sexual assault. As you can imagine, the experience was extremely traumatizing and its effects have been long lasting. I have struggled with anxiety, panic attacks, and severe depression for most of my life and it was not until college that I found communities of people with similar struggles, in person and online. I connected with those who understand the overwhelming violation of body and spirit as well as the arduous task of recovery. But as I have engaged with these groups to support and empower others who have experienced sexual assault, one thing I have been challenged to reconcile is how to identify as a victim in a community that values and promotes the experience of survival.

 

To be a victim is to be “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” To survive is “to carry on despite hardships or trauma; [to] persevere.”

It is clear, even from the dictionary definition why we should want to rid ourselves of the title, victim. In identifying as victims, we risk erasing our power, our strength, our determination to live. In taking this label we may deny all of the work we have done to heal; counseling, coping strategies, testifying against our perpetrators, getting out of bed in the morning. If we allow ourselves to be called victims, we risk rejecting the all the hell it took to make it through our experience(s); shutting off our memories, leaving our bodies, screaming or staying silent, fighting back.

But what loss do we risk in renaming ourselves survivors?

In identifying as a survivor, I am most afraid that we risk painting a pretty face on sexual assault. By this I mean, I am afraid people will pay more attention to the shininess of our bravery than they will the rust stained reality of our experience. They will be happy to bask in the ease of our present survival and to be free from the s truths of our pasts that are child molestation or rape. I am terrified that if I say, “I survived this disease”,  people will stop asking, “What caused it?”

In our desire to erase the feeling of weakness that comes along with being victimized, by calling ourselves survivors, we also risk erasing those who have not survived, who were killed or who have committed suicide. Are they survivor’s too? Should even the dead be pressured to live?

As people who have experienced sexual assault, we all inhabit this twisted space, where we are asked to “carry on, despite” though everything inside says, “I can’t do that today!” Society says “Take a breath, stop letting this define you, move past this, survive!”  And some of us have.

But there are those of us who will never move past this experience, who will fail to ever see this as something that happened but does not define, or worse, something that happened for a reason. For me, the process of healing will never end. I have spent twelve years grieving my ten year old self and I will live everyday remembering her. The only question left is, Can we be victims, without dying?”  Is living enough?”  Or Must we survive?

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