Victims Surviving Labels
Like many others, I thought I had the terminology figured out. My understanding was that you start out as a victim. That’s what you are when you’re being assaulted. Then through some magical process you transform from victim to survivor & become brave & heroic: someone who is maybe even stronger than before.
I actually developed a wince at the very word ‘victim’, believing it to cast women and girls in a weak, passive, negative role. I spoke in my first blog about finding myself labelled and defined by an overwhelmingly negative experience. And whether that label and definition is “victim” or “survivor”, it’s a label and a definition based on what was done to me by someone else.
The reality is that we are all more than what was done to us or how we’ve moved past it.
Many of you know I’m studying a masters at the Child & Women Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU). A lot of people I talk with probably feel they’re taking the course by proxy, as I can’t help discussing the fascinating new concepts introduced by Dr Maddy Coy & Professor Liz Kelly.
Inevitably, my enthusiasm for the subject will be inspiring blogs from time to time. Recently, we looked at victims, victimisation, victimhood and more: all based around the word and concept of “victim”. Rather than recording the content of the lecture in full, I’d like to share with you the enormous challenges it posed to my thinking. I don’t pretend to be an expert: I will have misinterpreted and misunderstood in places. My enjoyment comes from discussions with fellow learners, so corrections are most welcome.
Living in the aftermath of sexual assault, I recognise there’s a tension: it’s the tension between being a victim and a survivor. Some days, when I’m campaigning and speaking out publicly, I feel relatively strong. The very next day, the consciousness of the experience might mean it’s a struggle for me to even get out of bed. Both of those are part of my experience.
I had understood that I was a survivor. That understanding left no place for me to handle the days on which I struggle with being a victim of violence.
It’s also worth looking more carefully at women’s status as victims during an assault. A definition of “victim” is “a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment”. Applied to rape, it’s a term which leaves no space for the agency women exercise even while experiencing the attack. We are simply “helpless” and “passive”. Is that all?
Was I helpless and passive? What I know, from my personal experience, is that as I was raped, my mind detached and took itself somewhere else while the worst was happening. As I’ve only recently come to realise, this is common amongst women, and it is a form of agency. Some protective mechanism kicks in whereby we take ourselves away in our minds and hearts to a place which no attacker can reach. It’s part of a fight to survive. It’s not physical, but it’s still a fight. An active process. I’ve heard other women and young girls describe this phenomenon. To my mind, it’s a heroic response.
Whilst the emotional impact of labels is clear, I’m only beginning to understand more of the criminal justice system & the practical effect of labels within that sphere. If we describe women as victims during an assault, what happens if the woman doesn’t completely fit our idea of how a victim ‘should be’? What if she’s drunk, wearing a short skirt, or exercises some agency in the situation. The latter is common as described above & extends to include negotiation about the location (e.g. not in front of children) or form the assault will take (e.g. negotiating type of sexual assault).
Yes: negotiation about the form of an assault. Many will remember the Texas case where a grand jury failed to indict a rapist whose victim had persuaded him to wear a condom. She was afraid that he might transmit HIV to her. But she knew that he wouldn’t care about that. So with incredible presence of mind, she had suggested to him that she might carry the virus. As a result, he wore a condom to protect himself. It is a story which has a tragic absurdity to it.
Although jury proceedings are secret, one participant said that, “the woman's act of self-protection might have implied her consent”. Eight months later, a county jury did go on to convict the perpetrator of aggravated sexual assault. However the initial result demonstrates the difficulty in seeing that a person who negotiates or acts in any way can still be a victim.
This difficulty is not just external, as Lyndsay Kirkham’s very moving article “Strong Women” illustrates all to clearly. How we define ourselves can make it difficult to acknowledge we are victims, which in turn prevents us reaching out for support.
I’ve come to the end of my capacity to deal with the linguistics. I’m not Noam Chomsky. All I know is that the language isn’t right, and because it isn’t right, it has a very real (and negative) impact on the way women and crime are treated and regarded, and a very real (and negative) impact on the way that women process the experience. If, conversely, we can get the language right, it will absolutely change perceptions and bring us closer to an end to victim blaming.Download this post as PDF? Click here