Saturday, December 13, 2008

victims, survivors, and everything in between

I don't know that I could articulate any of this better than Cara already has, so you should probably go read her post first.
I also don't think that my thoughts on any of this have settled into much of a cohesive post, so this will mostly be a stream-of-consciousness response / expansion on the coherent, articulate thoughts over at Cara's post.

I've talked about the troubling rhetoric around the terms "victim" and "survivor" before. That post, though, focuses more specifically on the trouble with the word "survivor," and the implications of that term and the universal "healing process" that it implies.
Cara's post, though, focuses a little more on the word "victim," and that side of the rhetoric. It's all part of a similar discussion, I think.

A little excerpt from Cara's post, to start it off:
I understand the desire by those who have been raped or abused to use the word “survivor” instead of “victim,” to take the focus away from what someone else did to them and gave them no choice about, to something positive that they themselves have accomplished. But let us be honest for a minute: is there more to it than that? Is there really something there that has to do with shame, with constant admonishments either directed specifically towards them or towards women everywhere, saying “don’t be a victim”? Is there a desire to get away from that embarrassing, horrible word? I tend to use the word “survivor” myself. And I have to wonder.

And if it’s about shame, about stepping away from “victim,” is there any way for there to not be a touch of self-blame in the reasoning?
“Don’t be a victim.” “I won’t be a victim.” “Women always want to play the victim.”

The insult in “victim” is that victims are weak and helpless. Victims are whiners, attention-seekers, cry-babies. They want to dwell on the negative.

My first response to her post was a loud (out loud), "THANK YOU."
It's always unexpected, and so incredibly relieving, to hear other people making arguments along the same lines that I've been making...the arguments that I assume are n the margins, are unpopular. Of course, just the fact that the two of us (and some of her commenters) are saying the same kind of thing doesn't mean that it's not a marginal argument, but it does mean that I've got a little company here on the margins. And that's always a pleasant surprise.

Cara, and a couple of the people in her comments, put into words the other side of my problem with the rhetoric; they open the conversation up even further, beyond my old discussion of why "survivor" doesn't fit everyone and into why it is that "victim" is such a derisive term.
Lea, in the comments of cara's post:
There seems to be a time limit on how long people are comfortable with someone being a victim. It might just only be for a day, or a week, maybe even a few months, but it is never on the victimized woman’s terms. But I think that because so many women are not believed about their experiences with violence, that ‘victim’ becomes a powerful word of acknowledgment. It grants permission to be vulnerable, fragile, to feel ‘degraded’ if she needs to, to take time, to break under pressure if that is all she is able to do. Disparaging the identity of ‘victim’ silences us, it says “get over it and shut up”. People don’t want to hear the rawness, the complexity of violence, they want it in tidy packages that don’t challenge them, or demand any recognition or support.

This, I think, is another big part of why I have been, and still am, so resistant to the limited rhetoric of "surviving" sexual abuse and assault.

I risk getting too personal, too "lying on the couch talking about my mother," but I think the only way to start this off is to acknowledge where my investment in this whole discussion comes from.

For a year after I was released from the psych hospital when I was 15, I was shuffled around from therapist to psychotherapist to psychologist. I refused to confide in a male therapist, and since Western NY, at least at that time, was seriously lacking in female counselors (that were covered by my insurance), my therapists ranged geographically from my hometown all the way up to Buffalo and the suburbs of West Seneca, Amherst, and Williamsville. There was a brief stint with "family therapy" with a daughter-blaming male psychologist in my hometown, as well, which, thank god, only lasted one session.
I eventually ended up back with the therapist I'd been seeing since I was 13, one of (then) two female therapists in my hometown, but she was under strict instruction from my parents to achieve a very important goal for them:
I needed to stop playing the victim. Julie, my therapist, was instructed by my parents to move me from "victim" to "survivor" mode.

I was resistant, but I could never put my finger on why it was so important to me to resist that shift as directed by these people who (supposedly) loved me. That was what healing was supposed to be, right? Moving into a more healed place would mean that I'd identify more as a survivor than as a victim.

"Don't be a victim anymore."
"Don't play the victim."
"Be a survivor, not a victim."
"Move beyond being a victim."
This all would've left a bad taste in my mouth coming from anyone, but coming from my parents, this is what they really meant:
"Stop dwelling on this. Just get over it. Don't talk about it. Don't remind us of this. Stop being so weak. Be stronger. It wasn't really that bad."

Yes, it was worse because of the source, and that is worth mentioning. My being a "victim" meant that I was still affected by what their son did, my "acting" like a victim meant that they couldn't forget that their daughter had been hurt -- that they'd been part of allowing their daughter to be hurt.
I was resistant to the idea of moving beyond "victim" into that "survivor" mode, because their incentive, their intent was never for their daughter to heal or empower herself to the point of finding her self-worth, and their intent was never for their daughter to stop blaming herself. Their intent was for me to take responsibility for what happened, and to subsequently move on, for the sake of that coveted "happy family."
If I stayed in "victim" mode (i.e. not denying the pain that the abuse caused, not minimizing it for the sake of my bio-family, actually acknowledging that this happened and, yes, it affected me deeply), I could somehow strike back at my parents, at my brother, at my family. If I resisted their efforts to forcefully push me from victim to survivor, I could give them the finger in the only way I felt comfortable. It was the only subtle way I had to maintain for myself an acknowledgment that I'd been hurt while still keeping some semblance of peace for my family. Remaining a "victim," then, especially while I was in that emotionally damaging family situation, was the only way I could survive. Maintaining my "victim" identity was, somewhat ironically, the way I managed to survive those years.

Even with my own history with the word, and even putting my parents' self-interested denial of abuse aside, though, the pressure for "victims" to "get over it" is still incredibly problematic. I think that it has a lot to do with wanting/needing to blame victims, with putting the onus for, well, everything directly onto the backs of raped and abused women. Nobody wants to be a victim, and nobody wants to believe that they can be victimized. Telling a victim to step up and be a Survivor, telling her to move on and not be a victim anymore implies that there's a way out of it. If a victim can become a survivor by being strong, then that means that she stays a victim by being weak. Which implies that if the victim would've just been strong to begin with, she wouldn't have been a victim. Implying, therefore, that you can avoid being a victim if you're just strong enough.
Which, of course, is bullshit.

In the comments at Cara's post, Ilyka likens the "survivor" rhetoric to the pink ribbon campaign, which I think is right on:
I think the preference for “survivor” is one of those things that started out with mostly good intentions but is increasingly feeling like the pink ribbon campaign for me. You know, breast cancer isn’t something that kills women; it’s something women survive! Except when they don’t.

The campaign for re-branding women who've been victims of sexual abuse and assault as "survivors" rather than "victims" started in the right place. It started as a way to empower women, to give us agency and a way to give us power in a situation where we had none. It's shifted, though, and it's fallen into the trap of victim blaming. It's been co-opted by people who just want to silence victims, who don't want to hear about how much hurt it can cause, and who don't want to take responsibility for their part in allowing the rape culture that we live in to continue. If women are survivors, after all, and if they're able to move on to the point where the rest of the world doesn't have to think about how they've been hurt, then maybe sexual assault isn't so bad. And maybe we don't have to dedicate so much time to the kind of activism that deals with the kind of things we don't want to think about.

(Like I said, my thoughts on this are far from refined into a cohesive, organized essay. They're rambling and not at all concise, and are subject to later edits...if I can mold them into something more organized.)

3 comments: said...

Hi there,

This really helped me to take an entirely different perspective in my work as a rape trauma responder within the E.R. of local hospitals...

I was trained not to ever use "victim" language. In fact, in the hospital, if a woman arrives who has been raped, she doesn't even realize that we DO NOT use her name when speaking to the doctors and they don't use her name when speaking to the rape trauma responder.

Everyone refers to her as "the survivor". This is to guard her confidentiality from any ears that may be in the E.R. but still, it also has a lot to do with our refusal to "victimize".

You have helped me to see this with new eyes.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Yes, a very smart post -- as a survivor (ahem) of childhood abuse myself (and a victim and everything in between), I can certainly relate to the pressure to seem like I'm fine, yeah it's just something in the past, yeah I'm fine, except... I'm not fine. Not at all, really.

On a different note, I'm wondering about the consistent assumption that victims/survivors are exclusively female, and whether this serves to render non-female survivors invisible -- are there ways to call attention to the gendered dynamics of sexualized violence that also include non-female survivors within a feminist analysis?

Love --

Jen said...


you make, of course, a very good point. there must be a way to take into account the experiences of non-female victims/survivors of sexual violence. after all, it comes down not simply to gender, but to power dynamics. while they're often gendered in the 'traditional' (male-female) way, that is by no means an inflexible rule.

i think that non-female victims/survivors have indeed been rendered invisible by the same kind of Survivor Rhetoric that all kinds of non-normative (queer, for example) victims/survivors have been rendered mostly invisible. the stories that don't fit into the lifetime tv story or the Courage To Heal are always pushed so far to the margins. we can try to shout, but most people won't hear us, and most people don't want to hear stories that might challenge their assumptions about who is targeted by sexualized violence.

and yes, i'm guilty, too, of engaging with the assumption that all victims/survivors are female. thank you for calling me out on that. if we're going to open up the dialogue to include everyone's stories - ugly and mean and happy endings and all - we (I) need to let go of the easy assumptions.

that, i think, is how we include non-female survivors while still seeing and calling attention to the gendered dynamics of this violence. by creating spaces where we can all tell our non-normative stories and still find that common thread. spaces like little blogs scattered around the internet. and spaces like your incredible anthologies and books. etc.