The language we use in talking about sex abuse is so very important. Words shape the direction of our lives and our thinking. The words spoken to us, around us and over us create pathways upon which our lives play out. Words can build up or tear down, set limits or promote freedom, encourage or discourage, bless or curse.
As uncomfortable as it may be, it is time to reclaim the word “victim”. When we too quickly use the word “survivor” to describe someone who has been traumatized by sex abuse, we are negating the reality of the impact of sex abuse (which they don’t understand yet) and “promoting” them into a status that doesn’t allow for the necessary healing. On the outside they adopt the identity of survivor, meaning “I’m Okay”, “I survived it”, while on the inside all they know is fear, uncertainty, intense pain, and loss of personal identity.
It is no wonder the victim of sex abuse hears, “put it behind you”, “why are you still thinking about that”, for we have told them by denying their victimhood that it IS over. We have told them in the use of our language that it IS all better – you survived! This is wrong and destructive, and perpetuates and prolongs the damage of abuse.
Saying, “I’m a survivor” is not more empowering than saying, “I’m a victim”. Victims have more power to get freedom than survivors because first, victims can place the blame where it belongs – on the person who hurt them. A victim knows that something was done to them. Using the word “victim”, helps shift the sense of responsibility that “survivors” typically carry.
Secondly, when someone says, “I am a victim of sex abuse”, they create an open space and a direction to travel to the place of becoming a “survivor.” That space allows for looking at the impact of sex abuse. The impact is found in what one believes about self and the world, and is where the real damage of sex abuse hides. A survivor has overcome and conquered something, and until the belief systems, pain and confusion are addressed, you have not conquered the event.
First a victim, then a survivor, once the impact of the trauma has been cleansed and overcome.
P.S. – Another thought about use of language: I would also suggest we lose the “I AM…” That denotes identity and connects who you are to the trauma! You aren’t your trauma! Rather say, “I was victimized by sex abuse” or, “I experienced sex abuse.”
by Rebecca Born