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the terminology of sexual assault

by fleuralplants

Warning: This work has been rated 16+.

"You're not a victim, you're a survivor!" Words of encouragement such as the aforementioned are extended to those who have experienced a sexual assault, as if being a survivor of something is some sort of trophy to parade around. Although some bask in the glory of self-identifying as a survivor, and more power to them for finding a way to handle their sexual assault, but some of us feel differently. Perhaps I am an outlier, a strange case of a person who wallows in victimhood, but I prefer the word ‘victim’ over ‘survivor’. The connotations surrounding ‘survivor’ are entirely too hefty for me; I did not survive anything, as my life was not in danger in the first place. The connotations and emotions surrounding the word ‘victim’ seem to fit me much better- I had a crime committed against me as a child, thus I am a victim of a crime. ‘Victim’ seems to incite ideas of a damaged individual, one who is still reeling in trauma, while ‘survivor’ implies a person who is overcoming their traumatic experience. This is exactly why I would define myself as a victim rather than a survivor; my life was not threatened, and I am still, perhaps eternally, damaged by what was committed against me.

‘Victim’ is a word that has seemed to morph into a monster over the years, two-headed with gnarly teeth. A stigma has grown around it, as demonstrated in Netflix’s Luckiest Girl Alive, when a male character who has not experienced an assault corrects his verbiage to ‘survivor’ when, at first, he uses the term ‘victim’. Everyone seems to prefer the word ‘survivor’- even the term ‘Victim’s Advocate’ has been replaced with ‘Survivor’s Advocate’. The idea behind this is nice- giving power back to those who had it stripped from them. But also, we must allow ourselves to be victims. I believe that having a sense of self-pity and a sense of victimhood is an essential part of the healing process, although it is not a state that anyone wants to stay in forever. Self-pity is not all bad; sometimes it is necessary for healing. Sometimes we need to feel bad for ourselves, and we need others to feel bad for us too. Being able to identify yourself as the victim of a crime is paramount in dealing with what has taken place. Personally, it took me until I was eleven years old to grasp the magnitude of what had taken place that one day. I did not understand that anything criminal had taken place, but understanding that a crime was committed against me and I was a victim was crucial in my understanding of the situation.

Perhaps in the future, if I am more healed and my emotional wounds are bandaged, I will feel more comfortable with the terminology of ‘survivor’ rather than ‘victim’. For now, I am associating myself with the word ‘victim’ because it does not feel right to claim the title of ‘survivor’. When I hear the word ‘survivor’, I think of those who leapt from the burning and destroyed World Trade Center on 9/11, or those who experienced school shootings and lived to tell the story, or those who were on rapidly declining planes and had to tread water for days before a ship noticed them. Ascribing ‘survivor’ to being molested does not seem to fit; it seems a title too prestigious for this crime that was committed. This is not to say that cases of sexual assault can not also be near-death experiences; for some people, they certainly are near-death experiences, based on the circumstances surrounding the situation. In my personal case, in which my assault was at the hands of a family member that I knew, that I had been around before, that did not physically or verbally accost me in order to commit his crime, ‘survivor’ does not make sense to me. ‘Victim’ makes much more sense. My sexual assault is not the type you see often in movies- it was not a crying, screaming girl who begged and plead. It was a young child, so confused and unaware of what was happening, so much so that it did not take any force for anything to happen. It is tough to grapple with, and it is hard to not blame yourself for things such as this- my assaulter behaved gently with me, although the crime at hand is inherently violent and disturbing. Since it was not a situation in which I was beaten, bruised and bloody, or where I was threatened with weaponry, the term ‘survivor’ does not feel fitting.

I can try to describe myself as a survivor, but it feels like I am trying to mold myself into something I am not. It feels like a cliche, like what you’d expect someone in the movies to say, or what you’d expect a motivational speaker to say about themselves. Maybe I did not even survive the assault- it seems that everyday I relive the event, and I am only living, not thriving. My physical being survived, but mentally and emotionally, I was forever stunted and ruined by that event. ‘Victim’ is not debatable for me; I was a victim of a crime- yet, ‘survivor’ as a descriptor of myself is debatable because, did I really survive that?

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37 Reviews

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Reviews: 37

Tue Oct 25, 2022 3:09 am
Stringbean says...

Hey flueuralplants,

I really appreciate you sharing this. Having been through what sounds like a pretty similar experience, I can relate to a lot of this. I've stumbled over the terminology too, victim vs survivor. In the end, I think what's important is what helps you.

I really like what you pointed out about the importance of being able to identify ourselves as victims as the first part of healing. I never really though about it that way, but that really is one of the hardest parts for people all too often and was for me too. Our experiences get belittled and our hurt pushed away because there's no not necessarily any blood, any screaming, death threats, or Hollywood dramatization. But it's still real. It's still destructive. There's power in the word "victim" that we shouldn't forget.

For me, there's power in the word "survivor" too. I wasn't comfortable calling myself that for awhile, but after more than ten years, I've done a lot of healing, and I don't feel like a victim of that abuse every day anymore. When I was little and he hurt me, I was a victim. And when the effects of that trauma were taking control of my life and who I was in ways I didn't want or understand, I was a victim. But I've learned recently that it does end. There's no power of eternity in what those people have done to us. I've absolutely been changed by it, but I've taken charge of that change and use it for myself and for other people. And, my life isn't reduced to just what's changed because of trauma. I've changed and grown and stayed the same in so many other ways. What those people do isn't all-consuming either.

I really believe that's what it means to heal more than anything, to learn to take charge of the change where it happens, and to reconnect with the rest of who you are too. And I think your ability and choice to write and share this, to even puzzle through it, is evidence that you're healing too. Every time someone sees us or we can see each other, it makes a little bit of difference.

Lots of love,
Stringbean <3

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147 Reviews

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Tue Oct 25, 2022 1:53 am
Carina says...

Just wanted to drop by to say that I am proud of you. I know this doesn't mean much from an internet stranger, but I thought I'd say it nonetheless. There are a lot of mean, bitter people in this world who lack the introspection to think through difficult thoughts...

But you are not one of them.

Wishing you warm, sunny days ahead. :)

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Mon Oct 24, 2022 7:13 pm
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alliyah wrote a review...

Hi there,

I don't really feel like I can write any critiques on this piece so I will mainly focus on praise and comments. You've done a very solid job making your case for why these terms matter and why the term "victim" feels more validating for your experience. I saw a couple grammatical errors, but nothing that inhibited my understanding of the piece which was very polished.

I think you've written a very thoughtful reflection here of your experiences and thoughts. I think for any traumatic situation, especially when another person's consent has previously been disregarded it is very important for folks responding in care to give that person back ownership of their situation in whatever safe ways that they can. ie. letting people control how much they want to share, what response they take with authorities, and as you make the case in your piece - letting them control the language they use for their situation. I think many people like the word "survivor" because they might feel more agency associated with it; but you've made a good case for showing why in your situation claiming the word "victim" feels like it acknowledges your story and feelings more accurately than "survivor". I appreciate that you were able to do this without putting down those who maybe resonate with the 'survivor' term a bit more. Very well written, and I think makes a good case for asking people what term they want to use.

Also just wanted to be sure to say, my heart really goes out to you for experiencing this, I am really sorry this happened to you, and I really hope you've been able to get some support from your connections in real life about this, because these are some really heavy things to have to deal with.

it is hard to not blame yourself for things such as this

It is so not your fault. Especially being a child. Again, so very sorry you had this experience. <3

Self-pity is not all bad; sometimes it is necessary for healing. Sometimes we need to feel bad for ourselves, and we need others to feel bad for us too.

^ Definitely agree with this statement as well, there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling the injustice / sadness of a situation in which you were harmed. Self-grace, self-care, self-empathy are all powerful. And while this might not apply to everyone's situation with traumatic situations - I think usually acknowledging the harm and impact of the trauma is pretty essential to figuring out how to move forward.

Wishing you peace and continued healing. You're a good writer and I think this essay will bring attention to how people refer to those who've been impacted by sexual violence - perhaps giving them more agency by letting each individual choose which term feels best to them.

all the best,


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57 Reviews

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Reviews: 57

Thu Oct 20, 2022 5:45 pm
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Sunflowerdemon3712 wrote a review...

Sunflower here for a short review (or more of a comment I suppose)

I found this to be a very interesting piece and it was very interesting to get a different/new perspective on a situation like this. The wording you used in this essay is also bone chilling and beautiful, it really makes your writing just so effortlessly compelling. I think the way you handled this topic was done very well, you didn't put down people who think of themselves as 'survivors' while also still lifting up people who feel like a 'victim' it's a hard balance to strike for sometimes it feels like when it comes to these things people can turn on eachother and put each other down so easily.

Now I don't feel comfortable commenting on the topic itself, but I will say I think you handled it with grace and I wish you only the best in healing. (no matter how silly and cliche it may sound)

Have a lovely day or night and keep on writing. Bye.

The person who has no opinion will seldom be wrong.
— Anonymous