I was running through my upcoming keynote address at Carnegie Mellon’s MOSAIC conference for my niece, a recent university graduate, when she suddenly looked up from her phone, on which she had been taking notes.
“You can’t say that,” she said.
“Say what?” I asked.
“Victim,” she told me. “You have to say ‘survivor.'”
This was news to me. But a quick Google search showed me that I seem to be in the minority in preferring the V-word. “Survivor” is thought to be a more empowering term–a more respectful one.
Yet it isn’t for me. The word “survivor” doesn’t make me feel empowered. It makes me feel as if I’m expected to shoulder responsibility for an act over which I had no power whatsoever–one done in front of witnesses, one designed to humiliate me and remove every last shred of my dignity.
Yes–I survived it. But my self-confidence didn’t. Neither did my ability to trust people or a dozen other things I took for granted before it happened.
In the last few years, I’ve heard over and over that America is suffering from a “victim mentality”–that we are all just looking for someone else to blame for our problems. “Victim” has become a dirty word. Today it’s all about taking personal responsibility for things.
I’m happy to take responsibility for many things in my life. But not for being drugged, raped and violated with a hairbrush in front of others. I spent too many years blaming myself for what happened to me, when the responsibility rested solely with the man who did it to me. To me.
A friend I finally opened up to decades after my rape recently confided that she got tired of hearing about it. Sure, this really bad thing happened to you, she recalls thinking. But come on–get over it. Move on with your life.
And that’s what the word “survivor” means to me. It means “I don’t want to hear about it.” It means “you don’t have the right to feel victimized.”
So call me a survivor if it makes you feel better. I won’t be offended. And if you were sexually assaulted and you prefer the term “survivor,” then that’s what I’ll call you. It’s not a simple matter of one term being somehow better or more accurate than the other.
I’m both a victim and a survivor. And I’m going to call myself whichever makes me feel better on any given day.