Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

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.

Anyone wishing to explore these further may find the CWASU courses of interest. It’s possible to sign up for individual modules, the next being Sexual Violence. Funding advice is located here.

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One thought on “Victims Surviving Labels

  • Hecuba says:

    The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘victim’ as someone who has suffered harm and therefore whenever males decide to commit violence against a woman/girl this means the woman/girl experiences harm. Men who are subjected to physical violence by other men are recognised as having been ‘victimised’ and a crime has been committed against them.

    However, male supremacist legal system does its utmost to erase the fact male violence is committed against a woman/girl because her sex is female.

    Consider how male political prisoners who have been subjected to torture are viewed. Sometimes political male prisoners will sign confessions after they have been subjected to torture so does this mean the male’s confession is true even though he has been subjected to torture? Of course not but our male supremacist legal system consistently seeks to erase the fact male violence against women and girls routinely happens.

    The fact one female victim of male sexual violence engaged in survival strategy in order that the male rapist did not infect her with HIV/Aids does not magically erase the fact the male rapist subjected her to rape. The female victim did not ‘consent’ because she did not have the power to prevent the male from raping her, however she did manage to persuade the rapist to put on a condom before raping her.

    So if a male is attacked by another male and the male perpetrator tells the male I am going to kill you. The male victim then begs the male perpetrator ‘look take all my money but don’t kill me and so the male perpetrator accepts the male victim’s offer, takes his money and doesn’t murder him. Does this mean the male perpetrator did not physically assault the male and threaten to murder him because the male victim offered him money? Of course not because a crime had been committed but male violence against women and girls is always either trivialised or viewed as not happening. Anything a woman/girl does to survive is seen as either a crime did not happen because the woman engaged in coping strategies/survival strategies or else she supposedly ‘consented’ to whatever the male demanded so therefore no crime occurred.

    The fact is whenever a male/males decide to commit violence against women/girls then yes the female is a victim because she is rendered powerless and whilst many women do engage in survival strategies this does not erase the fact a male/males subjected her to violence. Remember the definition of victim is ‘someone who has suffered harm.’

    However our male supremacist system believes women and girls who have been subjected to male violence are either ‘victims or survivors’ wherein either the female is defined as a victim and hence she always remains a passive submissive creature or else she is heroic and magically able to ‘get over it and move on.’

    In reality this is not possible because women and girls who have been subjected to male violence cannot ‘magically get over it and move on.’ They cannot erase what the male chose to subject them to but at the same time it doesn’t mean the woman/girl is now defined as ‘just being a victim.’

    Remember the male political prisoner is he always a victim because he has been imprisoned and tortured for his political beliefs. Of course not, but the male prisoner once he has been released is allowed to be seen as a man who has suffered and whilst he is no longer a victim, it is accepted that he has been affected by his imprisonment and torture.

    Women however do not have that right – instead they must either be ‘victims’ or ‘survivors’ – they cannot be women who have been subjected to male violence and are attempting to deal with the aftermath.

    The term ‘survivor’ commonly erases the facts a woman/girl has been subjected to male violence and her experiences do affect her. She cannot magically return to that person she was before a male/males made the choice to subject her to violence. This is what men and their male supremacist system want – women to be returned ‘to that supposedly normal appropriate female state’ they were prior to being subjected to male violence. This means according to male illogic the harm men inflict on women and girls can magically be overcome and forgotten.

    In reality many women and girls struggle to deal with the after effects of what a male/males has/have subjected them to. This means as this author states that some days are ‘better than others’ but it also means the harm male/males subjected a woman to cannot be erased. Women can and do cope with the aftermath and yes they can rebuild their lives, but the woman can never return to the life she had prior to male targeting her.

    So in essence women are expected to be ‘survivors’ wherein they all can magically ‘get over it swiftly and move on.’ But this is a lie – the same lies are directed at individuals who experience a bereavement because the ones saying these platitudes don’t want to witness the distress/grief the individual is experiencing. Instead the individual is expected to be a ‘survivor’ by demonstrating they are heroic and able to ‘move on.’ Yes the raw feelings of grief do subside but the individual never ‘gets over it’ rather they learn to cope and that is totally different from ‘moving on.’

    Our life experiences do affect us and yes life experiences affect men too but they are allowed to be affected, whereas women are expected not to be affected but instead magically get over it and demonstrate they are strong!

    Remember being a victim doesn’t mean this defines the woman as someone who is passive and submissive – it means the woman has been harmed by a male/males. Ergo a crime has been committed against her and whatever strategies she engages in to try and reduce the violence she is being subjected to does not erase the male perpetrator’s(s) accountability.

    Those males who inflict torture on political prisoners do not have the fact they subjected a male/males to torture erased because men accept the fact a man/men subjected another man/men to torture. Furthermore the signed confession/statement a male political prisoner signs after being tortured does not mean the male prisoner ‘consented’ or ‘admitted his non-existent crime!’

    So why do so many women refuse to accept they were victims of male violence? Because as I said above women don’t want to be seen as ‘just victims’ but in reality these women were victims – victims because they were harmed, but it doesn’t mean the woman will forever be defined as a victim. However, she cannot return to being the person she was before being harmed and this is the lie men and their male supremacist system perpetuate.