Victim or Survivor: Respecting Our Choices

by Kathy Wiens, Chair, Into Account Board of Directors

I was recently at a physical therapy appointment. In the paperwork, they asked for my occupation. I dutifully filled in the blank with “author and speaker.” Even though my work entails more than this, I had to narrow down this part of my identity to a single line on a form. When I met the therapist, we connected more personally when I told her my husband works for a medical clinic in our town. These are two simple yet frequent ways I identify myself. We are constantly navigating through our world by saying who we are. Identity is an important part of our self-worth and value.

Sometimes others give us a label that affects how we see ourselves. Sometimes these labels are wrong. If someone said I was an NBA basketball player or a Sherpa from Nepal, these would be absurd labels for me. The labels that shape our identity are important and we are the ones who should control these.

It would be inappropriate for others to label me in these overt areas of my life; career, marital status, family relations, etc. But there are other ways to identify ourselves which are about experiences of pain and suffering. I may not even want others to know about this identity and I don’t want others to give inappropriate labels to these painful experiences. One such identity for me is that I am a woman who has experienced the crime of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). I did not always share this identity with others. Through much therapy, experience, and education I’m more open about this part of my life. I identify as a survivor. I’m the one who defines this identity for myself.

Terms used to identify individuals who have experienced sexual violence are typically victim, survivor, and sometimes thriver. As a person who has experienced CSA, I bristle when others use these terms in ways that feel disrespectful of my experience and diminishing of my humanity.

Here are two ways that organizations define these terms. A sample policy on the website of the Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA defines these terms as follows:

A victim of sexual abuse is a person who has experienced a violation of sexual boundaries either through direct or indirect contact. The victim can be a female or male of any age. A survivor of sexual abuse is a person who learns to cope with the abuse, understanding that he/she is not at fault. Being a victim implies a certain powerlessness, whereas a survivor has found the power from within to move toward healing.

Another organization, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), says this about victims and survivors:

One of the most frequent questions we receive is “should I use the term victim or survivor? Both terms are applicable. RAINN tends to use the term victim when referring to someone who has recently been affected by sexual violence; when discussing a particular crime; or when referring to aspects of the criminal justice system. We often use survivor to refer to someone who has gone through the recovery process or when discussing the short or long-term effects of sexual violence. Some people identify as a victim while others prefer the term survivor. The best way to be respectful is to ask for their preference.

These two organizations are pretty much saying the same thing in their definitions. However, in the RAINN definition, there is an emphasis placed on what term the person who has experienced sexual violence wants used to describe themselves. (The RAINN definition also avoids binary gender language.) The Mennonite Western District definition is imposing how they believe we should identify people. Also, this definition places judgment on the two terms. The word victim “implies a certain powerlessness,” and a survivor has “move[d] toward healing.” When definitions use judgmental language, it often imposes more shame on the person that has experienced the violence. When a person feels shame about the violence committed against them, it hinders the healing process, rather than helping.

Labeling a victim as powerless and a survivor as someone who has more “power from within” is a way to pit victims and survivors against each other so that the church can control the narrative about sexual violence.

Two things about the RAINN definition are helpful for me. One is when talking about a victim they use the term crime. The term victim is most often used in talking about someone who has experienced a crime. When the laws are just, sexual violence is criminal. However, many in society, particularly in the context of the church, do not acknowledge this.

Secondly, RAINN is more respectful of those who have experienced sexual violence. Their definition gives the control over terms to the person, rather than the organization. In saying, “the best way to be respectful is to ask for their preference,” RAINN is saying that each person is the expert on their experience, and they decide.

Some may ask if this is important. After all, we are just talking about words, and these two definitions are saying the same thing. But words matter. Words shape our perceptions and attitudes. The words we believe to be true influence how we treat our fellow human beings.

The reality is that anyone who has experienced a crime is a victim of that crime. Also, anyone who has experienced a violent crime such as sexual violence and is still alive is a survivor. They have survived the crime. They have survived the initial violence, and they have survived the emotional turmoil and not died because of suicide or other trauma-related causes. A survivor is not better or more virtuous than a victim. And a victim is not a weak, powerless individual.

People in our world who have had sexual violence perpetrated against them are our friends, co-workers, siblings, and many others. They make up at least 20% of our population. One way to care for and help those who have had sexual violence committed against them is to ask and respect how they wish to be identified.