Thursday, 16 May 2013

Why I don't like the whole 'survivor' thing

I mentioned in an earlier post that I don't really like the term 'survivor' when it's applied to people who have experienced sexual violence. Now seems as good a time as any to talk about why.

For those who aren't familiar with it, 'survivor' is used in place of 'victim' and is supposed to be empowering. Well, for me I have never found it to be empowering, quite the opposite. Whilst I was being abused I was most definitely a victim, calling me something else couldn't change that fact. Once the abuse stopped I certainly didn't feel like I had survived the experience, at least not intact. In fact, I took matters into my own hands to try and do quite the opposite. I tried to kill myself several times.

When people refer to me as a survivor it feels like they are making an assumption that I did something to survive, that I am exceptionally brave or heroic of something. Which was entirely at odds with my actual lived experience. It might be more appropriate these days, when I have a vested interest in being here and having a life. But here's the thing, for years before I reached that point people kept insisting that I was a survivor despite the fact what I felt like was a victim.

They kept telling me not 'let myself' be made into a victim. Which was an idea that struck me as ridiculous. I hadn't allowed myself to be made into a victim, I had been victimised by someone who had power over me. It wasn't something over which I had a choice. I understand that what people were trying to do was help me change how I viewed myself, to present me with an option that seemed more positive. Instead, they made me feel that by acknowledging the fact I had been victimised I was showing weakness and letting my father win.

The truth is, it was vital for my recovery that I accepted how powerless I had been. It was the only way for me to realise that I hadn't been in any way responsible for what happened to me, which I needed to do to let go of the guilt I felt about what had happened. It was only then that I could start the lengthy process of moving on. The constant pressure to relabel myself a survivor rather than a victim seemed designed to skip this step.

It also seemed to deny and dismiss the way I felt. The fact that for many years I didn't even feel like a whole person but rather a broken, fracture being. Which is not to say that all people who have experienced sexual violence feel the same way I do. Of course they don't, we're all different. For me though, the survivor label didn't fit and when I tried to object to it I was made to feel that I was doing something wrong.

Lets skip on a bit, to a time where I started to feel able to move forward with my life. Where I'd had extensive therapy and was starting to accept that my father was 100% responsible for what he did to me. Where I was no longer determined to die and had started to build a life for myself beyond the abuse. Such as now. As I said earlier, survivor might be a more appropriate label these days. A victim is what I was but it doesn't need to be who I am now.

Only, I don't want to be a survivor either. I don't want who and what I am to be defined in any way by what happened to me as a child. It's already the case that much of who I am has been shaped by my early experiences, as is true for everybody. I don't really see the benefit in granting my abuser any more power to dictate who I am.  I'm not a survivor, I'm a person who happened to be abused growing up and who happened to live beyond that experience. I am so many other things; a feminist, a writer, a lover, a friend, a daughter, a carer, an activist, a goth. A person. That's how I chose to identify myself.

If other people find the label helpful then great, but please stop applying it to everybody who's ever experienced sexual violence. Not all of us find it helpful or useful, some of us find it quite the opposite.

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