How people who were sexually abused choose to describe themselves, and are described, is something that has given many pause for thought over the past few decades.
I’ve given it a lot of thought myself, read widely about the choices, and their pros and cons, and heard erudite others give voice to their own thoughts, and research.
About ten years ago, I decided that most of the time, I feel like a survivor – because I made it through when so many don’t. On occasion, I feel like a victim. That’s usually when I have flashbacks, when I am further abused by one of my brothers (these days it’s not physical, or sexual, it’s ‘just’ bullying, on and off line), or when I have a nightmare that reminds me of the abuse I went through. More and more often, I feel like a victor. I feel like this most often when I am writing, speaking, or presenting on the issue of child sexual abuse, rape, intimate partner violence, and incest.
The word ‘victim’ however, often seems loaded – paired, as it so often is, with the word ‘helpless’. Those of us who have not died as a result of the abuse, or the trauma and other difficulties associated with it, rarely see ourselves as helpless. Sometimes, the word is used as if being a victim is a choice. Imelda Ryan, who lead St Louise’s Unit when I had the misfortune to attend, scathingly referred to me in letters as ‘viewing myself as a victim’. Bear in mind that I was being sexually assaulted about five times a week in my own home by my father and brothers, so how did she expect me to view myself?! This is the same ‘Doctor’ who referred to my disclosures of rape as ‘admissions’, and who told my father to be ‘more sensitive’ when he was sexually abusing me, so I am aware (from this remove) that her understanding of humans, abuse, and humans who are abused, might be rather lacking.
At the same time, I do believe that, before we can begin to heal, we need to acknowledge that we are victims in the first place.
Many of the women and men I encounter, and work with, prefer the descriptor ‘survivor’. I’m certainly not about to tell anyone what word they should use to refer to themselves and I think we need to credit ourselves with the fact that we have survived. We need to acknowledge how remarkable it is – how remarkable we are to have survived. We need to acknowledge that without feeling like we’re being immodest, to recognise the strength and commitment survival takes: Even on the days it really feels like we don’t want to, we do. And that needs to be acknowledged.
On the days when I feel like I’ve managed to feel bigger than my pain, on the days when I feel I have transmuted the abuse, and the terror, and the awfulness into something healing, and useful, I feel like a victor. My wish for every other victim, and survivor, is that they find their way to victory, too.