At 17 years old, I served on my first panel to discuss my experiences with sexual assault. When introducing me, the moderator explained, “Anya Alvarez, a victim of sexual assault, will share her story today.”
As soon as the word “victim” came out of the moderator’s mouth, I felt a sense of immediate sadness and grief. I felt like I had suddenly lost control of the steering wheel: as if I was being pulled back into the moments when I was raped and molested. I feared that the audience would suddenly see someone broken and weak.
I’m constantly reminded about this moment when I read news stories about rape, particularly commentary pieces. For instance, when Brock Turner initially received a six-month sentence for attempted rape, and was subsequently released three months in for “good behavior,” I saw multiple articles claiming that the survivor’s life was “ruined” as a result of his actions. And this is far from unique to Turner’s case: It appears that writers believe if they emphasize just how traumatic rape can be, it will make what the attacker did that much worse. But focusing solely on the pain caused reinforces a message to survivors that they may never move beyond their own trauma. For me, referring to survivors to as “victims” is an example of that messaging.
Of the three times I’ve been sexually assaulted, I’ve reported the abuse once to the police. When I was 9 years old, I was sexually abused for six months by a family friend. I testified against my abuser in court, and my experience was so emotionally traumatic that when I was raped at 16, I opted to not report the abuse to legal authorities.
And when it happened again at 18, the shame I felt was almost unbearable. I did not tell anyone for almost three years. It happened literally the day before I was supposed to appear on a CBS morning news show to discuss what a healthy relationship looked like for teens. At this point in my life, I had become an advocate against teen dating violence, encouraged teens to look for signs of abuse, and spoken openly about my sexual abuse as a child and my first rape. What deterred me from speaking openly about my second rape, even more than going to trial, was the fear of being treated like a “victim” all over again.
When I began my road to recovery from abuse, I had to avoid reading news articles for the longest time. When someone would write that the survivor’s life was ruined, I would often question if that meant mine was.
For many survivors, the line of questioning goes something like this:
“Will I never know it’s like to feel safe in a relationship?”
“Will I ever make it more than a week without crying?”
“Whom do I know to trust?”
“Am I damaged?”
“Will anyone ever truly love me knowing the abuse?”
“Was it somehow my fault?”
“Will I ever feel normal?”
“Is my life ruined?”
Trust me when I say that there are plenty of times when we feel like victims without anyone else’s input. There are moments when it truly does feel like our lives are ruined—as was so powerfully stated in the survivor’s letter that she read in court to Brock Turner.
But after speaking on that first panel at 17, I made it a point to ask that I be introduced as a “survivor,” rather than as a victim. I felt there was an important distinction to be made: that while I had been victimized during the attack, and despite the emotional wounds that could possibly never heal, I survived.
I understand that every person’s story and experiences are different, and I don’t want to take away from the process of their recovery. Not every survivor’s journey will look the same as someone else’s. Some people may prefer to be called victims. Being a survivor, though, doesn’t mean one is unscathed or unaffected. There are battle scars and wounds that need tending. Some days will seem better than others. There might be moments where someone will want to crawl into a hole so no one can find them.
Every day, survivors make choices that are small acts of bravery, whether it’s walking to a car in an empty parking lot; going out to have a drink with friends; opening up to someone new; or making the choice to just get through the day somehow.
All these choices may seem inconsequential. But when those in the media solely focus on trauma and pain—whether it is by referring to survivors as victims without question, or through other rhetoric that dwells on the consequences of the abuse—they inadvertently overlook the strength it takes to keep moving. And that could very well discourage the survivor to seek help.
It is not lost on me that writing about sexual assault is very difficult, particularly when writing about the person most affected by it. I understand the desire to amplify how awful rape and child sexual abuse is, and I will be the first one to tell you that I still experience flashbacks and have had to work tirelessly to find healing. Just three weeks ago, I woke up in a sweat after dreaming that I had been raped again. There are times when I don’t want my boyfriend to touch me, and there are days when I can barely move out of my bed.
But there is a way to talk about abuse in a way that does not diminish what happened, while also empowering those affected. More importantly, this does not mean that media can’t highlight the severity of the attack and what a grotesque and inhumane act it is.
My belief is that every article written about sexual assault should have some focus on the resources available to survivors so they can receive help rebuilding their lives. Writers should try to also put themselves in the position of those they write about and ask if they themselves would feel strengthened or diminished by their words. Then, of course, there’s the question about whether to refer victims as survivors unilaterally: This is where the writer should use discernment. While writing in more legal terms, the word victim may be more appropriate. When sharing an opinion, though, be thoughtful and cautious that the person you’re writing about may very well be reading your article.
Think of us survivors as if we were in the room with you when writing your pieces about sexual assault: Would you tell us to our faces that our lives are ruined? Would you continuously call us a victim, despite knowing we are all surviving in our own way?
The media has a responsibility to treat survivors of sexual assault as just that, survivors. Treat us like the warriors we are.