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What’s a Survivor Anyway?

April 20, 2012

I’ve posted here information and commentary on sexual violence in society before because it’s something that interests me from an educational and professional standpoint. But it’s also something I have some personal experience with and as feminist scholarship often talks of the retelling of personal narratives as political actions towards equality and an oppression-less society, I continue to tell mine as political action.

I don’t often make a pretty important concession (because I’m writing personal opinions on issues even though sometimes I mistakenly present them as objective) when I write about this stuff (see my posts on rape jokes earlier this year for an example) so I’m stopping myself right now to make it: this is my story. not yours. So the stuff I say may or may not apply to you. And you may or may not agree with it. Everyone has their own way of dealing with stuff in their life and more power to you if your way is different form mine! We cool? Awesome. (I’d love to hear your take on things as always in comments though!)

I want to write today about the concept of a “survivor” of sexual violence. There’s a lot of activism that goes into changing the discourse of “victim” of sexual violence to “survivor” as a form of empowerment and method of healing for a survivor. When I write about sexual violence in places other than my personal blog, I use the word survivor because it’s the “safer” term (for lack of a better word) as some people will get upset if you refer to them as victims but for the most part, you’re probably not going to get called out for calling someone a survivor. (For the record, “outing” people as a survivor is a no-no, especially if they have shared their story with you in confidence. Always ask if unsure where they stand on other people knowing!)

Here’s the thing: personally, I really don’t much like the term survivor over victim. And it’s because of my experiences. About two weeks ago was the year anniversary of my sexual assault and I thought about whether or not I considered myself any more a “survivor” than I had before and the only answer I could think of was no. And it’s not because I’m not in a better place because I definitely am, it’s because I just don’t think the term accurately captures my experience.

Never during my assault did I feel like my life was threatened. There wasn’t any potential death to survive so why would I call myself a survivor? And personally I’ve found that life after sexual violence doesn’t feel much like surviving either. it’s not something I can forget or move on from completely much like the binary term (you either survived or you didn’t) “survivor” would suggest.

Instead I guess I would call myself a “thriver”. Elsewhere in this blog I’ve touched on feminism and anger and the valuing of anger as an important emotion. This is why the term thriver feels a little more descriptive of my life. Because sexual assault isn’t something I move on from, it’s become an essential part of who I am and how I interpret and see the world. And like others who have experienced trauma (sexual or not), at turns I find myself mad, sad, happy, giddy, and just living my life, you know? It’s not something I survived and left behind, it’s something I’ve taken in and carried with me and tried to make as much good result from it as possible.

So I’m thriving. Because, yeah, I’m pretty pissed sometimes but it’s a pretty handy thing to be able to take that anger and use it to do good things. And that makes me happy.

In her book Rape Work, Patricia Yancey Martin quoted a Rape Crisis Center director:

Yes, a victim who is not killed survived (she lived, thus the label survivor) but we must remember [that] … someone violated her in a despicable, illegal, and humiliating way. We honor her by acknowledging her victimization.”

And so I don’t feel quite like a victim these days, for the most part, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel like a survivor, and the term thriver kind of sucks. So I don’t know what to call me. Probably a human being just trying to make it all work is a good descriptor.

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