English is my third language. There are times when my choice of words, or diction, gives me away as a foreigner more than does my accent. Part of learning a language is the process of embodying and owning the meaning of words. To me, this process is the art of diction; writing and speaking words that fit your personality, style, and identity.
When I started learning about interpersonal violence (IPV) during college, “victim” was the common term to refer to those who had experienced IPV. Over the past 10 years I have noticed a new trend with “survivor” becoming the preferred choice for many. You can find many blogs and statements online made about why we should call people “survivors,” and not “victims.” These arguments are relatively new to me, so I decided to write about my findings and thoughts on this particular choice of words. First, let’s review the dictionary definitions:
Survivor: “a person who copes well with difficulties in their life” Oxford; “someone who continues to function or prosper despite [difficulties]” Merriam-Webster.
Victim: “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action” Oxford; “a person who has been attacked, injured, robbed, or killed by someone else; someone or something that is harmed by an unpleasant event (such as illness or accident)” Merriam-Webster.
As an affected person myself, I feel that both of these terms apply to me. I accept that I have been harmed by an unpleasant event. I also cope with it, and would like to believe that I am functioning and prospering despite what happened. So why do we feel so strongly about calling us “survivors” only? It certainly has a positive and optimistic sound to it.
The arguments that I find over and over again is that “victim” implies passivity and a sense of being stuck whereas the word “survivor” is empowering and implies resilience and strength. I don’t disagree with these arguments, but could there be times when identifying as a “victim” is more appropriate?
I hope we can all agree that each person should be able to decide how they want to identify, and that we should respect that decision. Talking to others who have experienced IPV and reading stories online, it seems that at least some of us feel that we are, or at least have been, also “victims.” Something did happen to us. It took me years to learn how to face that it happened, face my perpetrator, and learn to move forward with my life despite the pain. From what I know, some of us are not as fortunate; some of us never move on.
For those who make a transition between identifying as a “victim” and then as a “survivor,” this process may take a long time; this means some of us may identify as “victims” for years. And that should be okay too. Additionally, if I wanted to pursue criminal charges against my perpetrator, I think I would want my lawyer to use the word “victim” rather than “survivor” in front of a jury.
At this point in my life, I mostly identify as a “survivor,” and I am proud of it. I feel that we need to be careful about telling others to call people who experience IPV one word or another, even if the intention behind it is good. There is a time and a place for each word, and it should be that person’s choice. It is important to let people who experience IPV know that others will use these words to describe them, what the words mean, and ask how they would like to be identified.
We all want to see people who experience IPV be “survivors” and move forward, but it is a process and it takes time. To ensure inclusiveness, I prefer documents that use “victim/survivor” instead of just one or the other.
For information on IPV and resources, visit www.safe.unc.edu