A man raped me seven years ago.
I was left traumatized, suicidal, and with a complex linguistic decision: what should I call myself?
For a long time I avoided using the terms rape victim or survivor. I simply said “I was raped” or “a man raped me.” But the experience of being raped forced its way into my identity, not just my history. It comes with the territory of writing publicly about my rape, of speaking openly about it. I am a woman; I am a writer; I am a rape ________.
I started where I always start: Google. I typed “rape victim vs. survivor” into the search bar. After reading just a few articles, it became clear that the correct term — or at least, the most search engine optimized term — for myself was “survivor.” Survivor is empowering, strong. It rolls off the tongue in a way that “victim” does not. My jaw relaxed, though I had not realized I was clenching it. I knew what to say. I had the words.
I didn’t think to question those articles then. They were from reputable publications and name-brand writers and activists, changemakers, role models.
In the years since, I’ve heard this particular message of empowerment repeated over and over again, a mantra of sorts: “We are not victims; we are survivors.” I’ve watched many who’ve experienced sexual violence articulate these words: many of the hundreds of women who spoke out against Larry Nassar; leaders in the #MeToo movement; sign-bearers at protests and at the Women’s March. Scrolling through news stories and watching YouTube videos on autoplay, I began to feel misrepresented.
Was I the only one who felt like “survivor” didn’t accurately sum up my identity?
Beneath this question of terminology, there is an implication that we start out as victims, but we outgrow that label as we “triumph” and move past the immediate aftermath of the crime. Survivor implies having survived the recovery process.
Though the physical pain and rainbow of bruises did eventually fade, the impact of my rape never really did. I stopped doing a lot of things in the wake of the rape — traveling alone, going on runs outside, dating. Though eventually I was able to get my life back, I lost years to fear, to PTSD, to hiding. Those years would’ve been different had I not been raped. I would be different had I not been raped.
For me, survivor sugarcoats the reality of rape. Survivor tells an ultimately hopeful, inspiring, empowering story. Look at us, thriving despite violence.
Survivor is easier for people to hear. It is more comfortable than victim. Victim reminds people of violent acts, of brutal realities. Survivor makes them think of rousing music and impossible courage. Survivor is the story of sexual violence that the media, the public, wants to hear.
I don’t know a single person that has experienced sexual violence and thinks they’re better off for it. The act and aftermath of sexual violence is not oriented around the potential light at the end of the tunnel. Ninety four percent of rape victims have symptoms of PTSD and 13 percent attempt suicide. Rape victims are up to 10 times more likely to abuse drugs. It’s not all empowerment and #MeToo rallies and harrowing news stories with “happy” endings. It’s not all inspiration.
My friend once told me, “surviving rape made you brave and strong.” But that’s not true. I was brave and strong before somebody raped me.
I don’t think I became stronger because of the rape. I think I simply got back to my baseline — brave and strong.
I am not better off for having been raped.
Conventional wisdom tells us to “get out of the victim mindset.” As if there is a stigma associated with the term “victim,” and “survivor” seeks to evade it.
Are victims of other crimes ashamed to have been victimized? Maybe. But there is a particular, and particularly egregious, stigma associated with sexual violence.
I refuse to feel ashamed of what was done to me. The shame of the act is not mine; it is on the one who perpetrated the crime. My rapist may never be punished, but he will always be guilty.
The language I use to talk about sexual violence should place the spotlight on the fact that another person perpetrated a crime against me, and we do not call the victim of a robbery a “survivor.”
I do not want to be the focus. I want the crime to be the focus. I want the criminal to be the focus. When we hear the term victim, we think about the crime, acknowledge its perpetrator. When we hear the term survivor, the perpetrator is erased. Empowering victims, linguistically or otherwise, won’t stop rape.
There are survivors of a fire, a natural disaster, a disease. Sexual violence is different. It is not an unstoppable pandemic. It is not a blameless illness. There is always somebody that bears the blame. We know who these people are, though they are rarely imprisoned. My rapist had dark curly hair, a rough beard and sharp fingernails.
Though I prefer it, I avoid using the word “victim” when writing or speaking. I use the word “survivor,” the word the #MeToo movement wants me to use, because I want the movement to succeed.
Common language is important to unification, to a consistent message — even just to SEO. But when I’m alone with myself, I know my truth. I am a victim of a heinous crime. Yes, I survived, but mostly I wish I did not have to spend time worrying about verbiage.
We need to get to a place where language can be more nuanced, more telling, more personal. We need to be able to speak our truths however we want to articulate them, to fully own our stories, and not just donate them to the cause.