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The Power of Labels: Survivor and Victim

When we talk about sexual and physical violence, do we use the "victim" label or "survivor" label?

Labels have the power to polarize, mobilize, and revolutionize. In so many ways, labeling provides recognition and acknowledgment, two fundamental basic human needs. In this post, I explore the choice of labels to encourage reflection on what we are recognizing and acknowledging. When we talk about sexual and physical violence, do we use the “victim” label or “survivor” label?

Some people would argue that labels don’t matter. However, in our society, there is a growing emphasis on the need to respect labels with which we identify, exemplified in gender-neutral pronouns “they/them.” Some believe that forcing the use of gender-neutral pronouns is a slippery slope to radical policing of everyday speech. In Canada, using the term “Aboriginal” as opposed to “Indigenous Peoples” is believed to reflect an archaic understanding that fails to recognize Indigenous Peoples in Canada as distinct, separate Nations. In South Africa’s apartheid, the legal classification into a racial group or label determined if you were a second-class citizen, your rights, and your entitlements.

Regardless which side of the debate you may align with, engaging in the debate is evidence that labels do matter.

When it comes to using the “victim” label or “survivor” label, what connotations do each of these hold? Furthermore, how do we reconcile the labels we give ourselves and the labels that others impose on us?

The Power of “Victim”

In the 1970s, victimology first became a separate scientific field to spread recognition for the victims’ cause. Particularly, the Feminist Movement demanded recognition for victims in the criminal justice system. Victimization was used to draw attention to the plight of marital rape and domestic violence.

The first international legal instrument to recognize victims of crime and abuse of power was the 1985 UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime Abuse of Power. Under this declaration, victims are entitled to treatment with compassion and respect for their dignity, access to mechanisms of justice and prompt redress, strengthened judicial and administrative mechanisms to obtain redress through procedures that are expeditious, fair, inexpensive and accessible. In this regard, the “victim” label provides a legal mechanism of entitlement, empowerment, and recognition. In this regard, there is power in the term victim to evoke worthiness of compassion, empathy, and solutions for one’s fate.

Each time a survivor resurfaced, people were quick to say what does she want, why did it take her so long, why now, why not then, why not faster. […] Why don’t we ask her how it was possible she lived with that hurt for so long, ask who taught her to never uncover it.

Chanel Miller, Author of “Know My Name”

From a legal perspective, a sexual assault or physical assault is a crime and a person subject to a crime is a victim. Criminology researcher, Dr. Jo-Anne Wemmers suggests that “being a victim is not a permanent state, however, and it is only after recognition of the victimization that recovery begins.” Furthermore, ingrained in the “victim” label is accountability of a perpetrator in that someone else is responsible for what has happened. In the justice system, accountability underlies the notion that the offender should be punished, and reparations should be made to the victim. Therefore, identifying yourself as a “victim” for a transient period of time can acknowledge an early stage on the path to recovery and that the convicted is at fault.

The Power of “Survivor”

In 2016, President Obama signed the historic Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act. The bill gives survivors the right to have a rape kit preserved for the length of the case’s statute of limitation, to be notified of evidence kit’s destruction, and to be informed about results of forensic exams. The bill was championed by Amanda Nguyen, a self-proclaimed sexual assault “survivor”, who has her sights set on the UN to pass a resolution guaranteeing civil rights to survivors worldwide. This is not to say that you must win a historic battle against the criminal justice system to embrace the “survivor” label. There are many stages to survive post-assault, and those who have experienced even just one stage can be deserving of the “survivor” label. 

In 2000, psychology researcher Monica Thompson found that the label “survivor” carried connotations of strength and recovery. The label “survivor” may suggest a latter stage of recovery. The “survivor” label can suggest resilience and a commitment to seek justice for both oneself and to protect others.  The “survivor” label may accurately appreciate the reality, gravity, and trauma of the experience, while acknowledging that it is in the past, you continue to be resilient, and live on despite it.

The Power of Individuality

Studies have found that on average, self-labeled survivors, victims, or those who identify with neither do not differ in self-blaming, endorsement of rape myths, and self-compassion. I would argue that the path to healing and recovery is individualized and when we typecast women who have experienced sexual or physical violence, we risk losing the power of individuality of experience and identity. Thompson has found that women who have experienced rape use both labels of “rape victim” and “rape survivor” depending on the context to formulate their experiences with rape in their own ways. For example, the participants would describe themselves as a “victim” in court and a “survivor” among friends. Context-dependent terms can empower you to shape your own identity and social realities.

Labels will have a different impact on each of us, so I encourage you to choose what resonates with you and empowers you. You, as you are, are worthy of compassion and empathy for your dignity regardless of your choice of label. There is merit and power in your choice to label yourself a “victim” or a “survivor”.

There is also merit and power in rejecting any label and identifying yourself as a person first and your experiences as simply parts that have formed your identity. Although labeling can concretize ambiguous experiences, that may not be what you need at this particular stage or even on this particular day. Not labeling can allow for a greater range of perceived identities and relationships beyond your past experiences.

At the end of the day, it is your choice.

Empowered young female friends smiling

Written by: Jenna Kara

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