I’ve gone back and forth on the use of the term ‘victim‘ v. ‘survivor‘ when describing people who have experienced sexual violence. It’s a comparable issue when writing about people who have experienced human rights violations, but it’s in discussions around women’s rights and sexual assault that I’ve seen more thinking around the terms we use.
My own diction has been determined by the nature of the work I’m doing: generally my research that examined occurrence and motivations behind sexual violence focused on victimhood, whereas previous work I’ve done as a counselor and advocate (supporting women directly in aftermath) focused on resilience.
But the choice between these two terms has left me dissatisfied, namely because it oscillates between two notions that are simultaneously present in sexual violence.
Broadly speaking, feminist discourse has tended towards using ‘survivor’ as default. Kate Ravenscroft employs the hybrid term ‘victim/survivor‘, explaining that it is necessary to retain ‘victim’ as part of the label because both are connected to people’s experiences. She writes:
Much writing about sexual assault focusses on telling those of use who have been affected by it that we needn’t be a victim. That instead, we can be a survivor or perhaps even a ‘thriver’. That we can overcome what has happened to us simply by choice, or willpower or some special combination of actions and decisions. While I see what this sort of work is trying to achieve, and appreciate its intention, I cannot either agree with it or abide by it. We are victims. Sexual assault happens to you, hatefully and deliberately. It is inflicted upon you by someone who knew very well what they were doing, who understood only too well that they were harming another human being in the pursuit of their own satisfaction. What more literal experience of victim could you inflict? It was never our choice to be in this situation and it cannot simply be made otherwise, by us or by others, no matter how determined or well-meaning.
…Taking an experience of submission, brutality and suffering and turning it into the site of empowerment is no small task, even if it is, literally, a meaning of survival. I suppose that this is what ‘victim/survivor’ means, the importance of maintaining both terms, of linking them to describe this life. One does not come without the other, one does not outweigh the other, one does not replace the other. Rather, they are the conditions, the competing realities of a post-rape existence.
–Kate Ravenscroft, “What does victim/survivor mean, anyway?“
But even this label is not enough in encompassing the full range of experience connected to sexual violence, particularly in conflict contexts. In a report on sexual violence in the DRC, Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern use the term “(non)survivor” “simply to point to the fact that not all victims of SGBV survive” (p 14, footnote 23). This may seem obvious, but given that the majority of discourse around SGBV focuses on the experiences of those who live after their violation, Baaz and Stern’s term is an important reminder that is not always the case, that recovery and justice is not always possible, and that in being a form of violence, rape is inextricably linked to mortality and death.
These are still imperfect labels though. (Non)survivor is easy to confuse with ‘non-survivor’, which could be used to desribe someone who has never been raped. ‘Victim/survivor’ is clunky and long. I’d be interested to know if anyone has other, or better, suggestions.