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Commentary Violence

Are People Who Have Experienced Sexual Violence Victims, or Survivors?

Nicole Froio

Though the roots of violence against women are collective, our responses will be different because we are different.

In October 2017, the Harvey Weinstein allegations moved thousands of women to post their stories under the #MeToo hashtag, originally created by Tarana Burke in 2006. #MeToo, and its spinoff #TimesUp, publicized in an unprecedented way the sexual violence women and girls had dealt with privately for generations. Women claimed the label of “survivor” across social media, demanding accountability and societal change. These actions, in turn, have reignited a conversation about the best terms to use for those who have experienced sexual violence.

For years, the feminist consensus has been that “survivor” is the word that gives us the most power and that reclaims our strength in the face of a misogynist society. Generations of feminists have established “survivor” as the word that counters women’s status as “victims” of sexual violence—but some feminist thinkers argue that victimhood and survivorship are both facets of sexual violence that must be recognized as a part of collective struggle.

The conversation on whether to use “survivor” or “victim” to refer to people who suffered sexual or gendered violence is 40 years old. Sociologist and activist Kathleen Barry in the 1979 book Female Sexual Slavery writes that feminist work in the 1970s in bringing attention to rape as a political crime committed against women and demanding recognition of women’s victimization created a new dehumanizing status—the victim. Rather than an identity chosen by the woman who was sexually attacked or abused, Barry points out that the label of “victim” is forced upon her, similarly to the assault she suffered. She then suggests the word “survivor” to show women’s “will, action, [and] initiative” in their own survival.

Almost ten years later in 1988, Liz Kelly argues in Surviving Sexual Violence that calling women affected by sexual violence “victims” erases the active and positive ways in which women resist, cope, and survive before, during, and after the violence.

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Decades later, the understandable insistence on using “survivor” over “victim” has inadvertently resulted in some dilemmas. When Kelly and Barry wrote their arguments, there was little to no recognition of people who suffered sexual violence who were not women. Men and nonbinary people are also vulnerable to sexual violence, and the split between “survivor” and “victim” can sometimes reproduce a gender binary that erases this violence.

This split has also put more stigma on the word “victim” as someone who lacks agency, someone whose passivity is seen as a negative trait, when passivity itself can often be a form of resistance. People who are still under the control of their abusers or have to continually negotiate interactions with people who do not believe them often use passivity as a form of resistance. Not reacting to violence or disbelief to avoid more abuse, conflict, or upset is a common survival tactic. It’s also important to ask if rejecting the word “victim” altogether plays into an age-old hatred of feminine traits—and if rejecting passivity mirrors misogyny. When a person is sexually attacked, it’s not the victim’s vulnerability that is to blame for that violence; the fault should fall on the perpetrator alone.

The idea that all women who suffer sexual assault and abuse are given victim status is also not completely accurate. Black American legal scholar Angela P. Harris points out in an academic article published in 1990 that legally, the experience of rape did not exist for Black women for a very long time. During slavery in the United States, the rape of Black people was not legally a crime. Even after the Civil War and Emancipation, Harris writes, “rape laws were seldom used to protect black women against either white or black men, since black women were considered promiscuous by nature,” she wrote. In other words, the status of “victim” has always been unequally distributed; though victimhood is not a perfect status, it can lead to investigations and protection of the victim. Victimhood status can assert that someone has bodily autonomy, that the person violated is human rather than an object.

Crucially, the construction of white women’s victimhood has been historically used to criminalize and stereotype Black men (and other men of color). Patricia Hill Collins, a social theorist of race, class, and gender, argues that this, in turn, has forced Black women who are sexually abused and assaulted to remain silent to protect their community from further societal racism. In her 2004 book Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, Collins writes, “Black women are demanded to ‘take the position’ to be abused and protect the community—within this logic, a black woman’s ability to absorb abuse becomes a measure of strength.” Because of the intersection of gender and race, survivorship rather than victimhood is imposed onto Black women by the Black community and by the anti-Black society we live in. This extends to other marginalized people as well: Native women struggle to be considered victims to this day, and thousands of women and children have reported sexual abuse in ICE detention facilities with no intercession by authorities.

Eight years after the publication of Surviving Sexual Assault, Kelly wrote in a chapter of Sexualizing the Social that positioning “victim” and “survivor” as opposing identities, has resulted in reinforcing the negative meaning of the word “victim.” As Brooklyn Law School professor Elizabeth M. Schneider points out in her 1995 article Feminism and the False Dichotomy of Victimization and Agency, the victimization/agency dichotomy doesn’t portray the full scope of women’s experiences. Schneider emphasizes that the “survivor” narrative, especially when it’s applied to domestic violence, tends to exclusively focus on the exit from the relationship rather than considering the complexity of the physical, emotional, and economic barriers to doing so. Schneider rejects the idea that victimization and agency are two oppositional extremes.

Another issue with the “survivor” narrative, Kelly notes, is the growth of therapeutic responses to sexual trauma. She points to self-help feminist literature as an example of marketable feminism that focuses on individual growth rather than collective responses to gendered violence. The marketable journey of “victim” to “survivor” offers “a false hope that experiences of abuse can be understood and responded to in a similar way to illness,” which can result in a lifetime of resentment and despair, she writes. In this sense, survivorship displaces a collective political struggle into an individual therapeutic journey that is not widely accessible to all women. Working-class women might not be able to afford therapy; single mothers might not have the time to do so; varying cultural expectations might bar some women from seeking help because of shame or fear they won’t be understood. Defaulting to survivorship splits our collective struggle for the eradication of sexual violence altogether across class, race, sexuality, gender, and ability.

What it comes down to is this: Though the roots of violence against women are collective, our responses will be different because we are different. A linear healing journey might work for some, but others might have to battle against their trauma their whole lives. Both of these journeys—and those beyond and in between them—are valid. We must emphasize that seeing yourself as a victim, or feeling like one, is not wrong or detrimental to our feminist collective struggle. Nor should we view vulnerability as a negative trait; those who abuse that vulnerability should be the ones seen negatively. When we talk about gendered violence, we must look at survivorship and victimhood as facets that co-exist—and make confronting sexual violence a collective struggle once again.

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