In 2016, the New York Times Magazine published an article called The Forced Heroism of the “Survivor.” Author Parul Sehgal talks about how the term “survivor” has been adopted by people who have experienced incidents of sexual violence and rape as an empowering way to self-identify. The article discusses, however, that not all who have experienced sexual violence may identify as such and how much pressure the word “survivor” can feel to some.
This unexpectedly became a theme in the most recent episode of the Alliance’s podcast, Sex Talk Happy Hour. In the episode, entitled “Healing and Dinosaurs,” I spoke with four women who had all experienced a form of sexual violence. One of the goals of this episode was to help any listener know how they could be supportive of survivors of sexual violence. I phrased the question using these terms, and one response I received was particularly striking.
Paraphrasing, one of our interviewees stated that she identifies as a victim, not a survivor, because sexual violence was something that happened to her, rather than something she “endured.” She states clearly that she completely understands why many use the term “survivor” but that it just is not the term she uses for herself.
It soon became evident that I was not the only one to find this thought striking.
Shortly after the episode aired, one of the other women I had interviewed reached out to me to share that she found this notion to be incredibly eye-opening and empowering. She shared with me that she never felt 100% comfortable with the term “survivor,” but because it is universally accepted, [she] thought that was the only way she could talk about her assault. She shared that while it never felt quite right, she went with it because “I didn’t know there was any other option.” More than that, she shared with me that through thinking about this notion she doesn’t hold either term as a core identity at all. Rather, she describes it as an experience she had as opposed to a personal identifier.
She’s also not the only one to reach out to me about this—multiple friends of mine who have listened to the episode have reached out to share that they had never really thought about another option or term being available for use.
Quickly I realized that we stopped asking how each individual preferred to talk about their experiences. Instead of asking, “Hi, how do you identify when it comes to this experience?” we just started ascribing the term “survivor” (and all its connotations) to every single person who has experienced sexual violence trauma. And in many ways, maybe we do this because it makes us feel more comfortable? Do we use the term “survivor” too widely because we think that’s the term with the least emotional baggage? Are we possibly erasing each person’s individuality? More importantly, are we potentially disempowering those who find that this term does not resonate with them?
From now on, these are the questions I will be asking myself. We cannot pretend to be true allies if we are not willing to step back and realize that ways in which we (even those of us actively working in the movement) might be contributing to a feeling of powerlessness to those who have experienced sexual violence. I for one am humbled by this revelation and am going to actively attempt to rewire my thinking by focusing on each individual’s preferences. I will no longer put the onus on the individual I’m speaking with to correct me with the term(s) they choose to use.