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Four years ago, I was sexually assaulted. This was obviously difficult to overcome. I have navigated how to deal with the mental health issues that spawn from this, and how I view myself after it happened. When I first started speaking publicly about my experience around a year ago, one of the first things I noticed was everyone’s desire to place me into one of two categories, that of ‘victim’ and that of ‘survivor’, and at first I didn’t feel uncomfortable with being put in either box. I felt like people tried to understand where I was coming from, what I had experienced and they used these two words to make me feel accepted (by them). However, as I grew more confident in sharing my story, I also grew more tired of people who haven’t experienced what I have, telling me I was a victim, or that I was a survivor, ultimately telling me they knew what I felt. In these conversations I felt cut at the knees and pushed into what people think someone who has been assaulted should be. But now that I feel comfortable enough to talk about what happened, I know what I have to tell you: I am not a victim, I am not a survivor. I have grown to hate both labels in equal measure, and now I will tell you why.
When you call me a victim, you take my power away. You turn my ability to tell you that I was assaulted into a cry for help, you supersede my story with what you think somebody assaulted should be. It makes me feel like damaged goods when I hear the label of victim, permanently broken, permanently defined by one experience. I understand the idea that victim is used to sound sensitive and place support in my corner but I also understand that a victim is someone who needs to be fixed, who needs to be taken care of. I am not that person. I’ve worked through my difficulties in moving past my assault and you need to know that when I tell you that, I mean it. Some people in my position don’t have an issue with being called a victim of sexual assault, and that is okay, that’s their story. The word victim is often used in court cases about sexual assault and rape and still, it is used as the go to word for people like me who speak out about what happened to them. But I also know from conversations with people like me that a lot of us really hate it. When having conversations about this tread lightly, because the word ‘victim’ can bring experiencers of sexual assault back to the moment of their assault, when they would have felt like victims.
The term survivor is generally more accepted as an appropriate term for people who have been assaulted, much more so than the word victim, but still I feel uncomfortable with it. The word survivor to me makes it sound like I’m brave because I was raped, which just feels ridiculous to me. I haven’t been through war or famine or natural disaster, I went through something that was very difficult but I’m not some inspiring survivor figure. I don’t deserve that kind of praise, I didn’t actively do anything really. I understand that survivor is far more sensitive, and it is something a lot of people like to be called but I just don’t feel at peace with it on a personal level. The survivor figure is somebody who inspires people and I don’t talk about this stuff with that intention, I talk about it because I feel a right to and a need to for other people dealing with this. I don’t want to be called a survivor because I don’t deserve that title, but funnily enough I find myself thinking about the other people I know who have experienced sexual assault in this way. I guess part of this is coming to terms with the fact that part of getting over this is knowing that you’re not going to feel any real connection to it in the end, I’m not a survivor because now it’s in the past it doesn’t feel like I survived anything.
Ultimately, labels for people who have been raped and sexually assaulted are not easy, personally I like to describe myself as an experiencer/experient of rape. I prefer this title because it doesn’t, to me, have the connotations of victimhood or the connotations of survivorship. Part of me wishes we could do away with both words but I know realistically that will never happen, we have a language built up around how we discuss sexual assault and people. Victims, survivors and experiencers all have their own positions that we need to be sensitive about. Finally, just know that if this is something you are struggling with there are resources out there that you can access in confidence that your story will only be shared when you are ready, if you are ever ready to share it.