Content note: This article contains discussions of rape and physical, childhood, and sexual abuse.
In 2016, on a radical feminist Facebook page for survivors of abuse, someone posted the question, “Do you identity as a victim or survivor?” As the thread progressed over the following weeks, people provided very heartfelt and nuanced responses. The discussion came up at a time in my life when I was actually claiming the fact that I had been victimized and was dropping the shame I had about it.
I didn’t start to start to fully recognize the impact of my borderline, sadistic mother’s abuse until an asshole I was dating raped me. Pervasive, persistent child abuse sets the adult child up for abusive friendships, relationships, and work situations. When that thing raped me, my usual methods of minimizing abuse worked for a few days. I woke up two days after the rape with a plan to play volleyball with friends. As I drove to meet them, I kept hearing screaming. It took me a few moments to realize it was me. Then I began to shake uncontrollably and felt unimaginable pain throughout my body.
I took out my cell and typed in “rape.” The phone number came up for a rape crisis center nearby, and I called. I remember adamantly telling the counselor that, since it was Sunday and they were closed, I could come in on Monday. Somehow, a woman’s kind voice filtered through my efforts to deflect, and I finally heard her say, “We will meet you. We will meet you there.”
As my body and mind were flooded with violent flashbacks that combined the rapist’s attack with my mother’s assaults on my body, I clung to the word “survivor.” I did not want to be a victim. In my mind, victims were weak, puny, ineffective, and vulnerable. Survivors were strong, resilient, and brave. Being a survivor meant I was past the trauma, over and done with it.
But my view has shifted as I’ve gained recovery. Through acknowledging I had been victimized, I felt the terror, fear, and rage that are a direct route to healing.
I was a victim. I was victimized. It’s not my shame. It’s the shame of the perpetrators.
Unfortunately, the directive “don’t be a victim” is thrown at those who have been victimized by predators, as well as at those who are victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, and every other phobia or –ism that is or ever was.
Those who shout, “Don’t be a victim!” are cowards. Those words are meant to shut down, to demean, and to shame. They are the words of someone who cannot bear witness to another’s pain. They are the words of those who are fearful of their own vulnerability. They may see themselves in the victim and not want to be in the same situation. So they engage in a bit of cognitive dissonance and essentially align themselves with the message of the predator: “Shut up. Be quiet. Suffer alone.”
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People become victims when they are victimized. It is not something they want to “be.” It is a status that is forced upon them through acts of gross inhumanity and violence. When you look up the definition of a victim, it reads, “A person harmed, injured, or killed as the result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. Also, a person who is tricked or duped.” These definitions are not laced with shame and the misplaced responsibility that the term has now come to embody.
Dismantling Myths About Victims of Sexual Violence
Whether in recovery or not, victims are far from weak. Whatever symptoms they are having are normal reactions to profound and deliberate violence. Victims are strong, courageous, and resilient. Victims who aren’t in recovery – because of the less than empathic world we live in – develop defenses that keep them engaging the world despite the terror they may feel. Despite deep levels of fear and internalized shame, they continue to function. Most women don’t report when they have been raped by men. They suffer silently in the face of intimate partner violence. Yet these women continue to raise their children, go to work, care for loved ones, and do everything else that is required of them.
After that thing raped me, I went to work the following Monday as though nothing had happened. During those initial days, everything was triggering. If someone came too close – and sometimes this could be within ten feet – I’d jump. Repetitive and loud noises grated on my nerves. I wasn’t sleeping, I was barely eating, and my digestive system was clogged from the medication I’d received to kill any possible STDs the rapist might have given me. The one “friend” I did tell suggested I get a guru since, according to her, I seemed to “attract” such violence into my life. And yet, I carried on.
I was having a conversation with a friend recently who was dealing with severe emotional flashbacks. She was down on herself because, after therapy, she felt exhausted. She described herself as lazy for wanting to rest. After a pretty intense session of therapy, many victims/survivors, including myself, sometimes experience extreme fatigue. Therapy takes a lot of energy and, when one is releasing the impact of past trauma, a lot of energy is expended, because it takes a whole lot of energy to suppress emotions.
I told my friend that the work of unpacking and releasing trauma is not for the faint of heart. I told her that it takes will, courage, and perseverance.
Victims/survivors aren’t lazy. They are far from it. It takes courage to walk willingly into the horror of one’s past and extract it. Even the act of seeking therapy comes from a deep personal belief that healing can happen and the faith that there are still good people in the world.
Over the past few years, there have been several victim/survivors who have stood up and said, “I was victimized,” and have demanded justice. In California, Jamie Carillo recorded a conversation with the coach who had molested her years before. The coach, who had become an assistant principal, was so shocked that she confessed. Carillo posted the audio of the conversation online. Even though the statute of limitations had run out in her case, she posted the video in the hopes that other children might be protected.
Savannah Dietrich, meanwhile, took a stand and tweeted the names of the teen boys who had digitally raped her, despite the fact that a judge had told her not to do so. Although not every victim/survivor outs the individual or individuals who assaulted them, every time a victim speaks the truth of what happened to them, they defy that unspoken of rule of “be silent.”
This unspoken but very loud directive is at the heart of rape culture. This country gives lip service to victims but doesn’t provide resources to back it up. If this country cared about victims, there would be no backlog in the processing of rape kits. If this country cared about victims, domestic violence shelters would have an abundance of funds, and women who went to authorities about abusers would be believed. If this country cared about victims, college campuses would treat rape like the crime it is.
The Importance of Bearing Witness for Healing
Dealing with trauma ain’t neat and tidy, and certain people simply aren’t strong enough to bear witness to another’s pain. Victims/survivors and true allies aren’t afraid to bear witness. Bearing witness means being present, means validating the horrors heard. It means offering an ear, not necessarily counseling. It means saying, “I believe you.” It means offering a hand or a shoulder to cry on if requested. It also means, at times, setting a boundary and saying, “I can only hold so much of this with you, but I will help you find others who can do more.”
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The most incredible example I’ve seen of the process of bearing witness to another’s pain happened on December 21, 1988. This was the day that Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbee, Scotland. A mother had just arrived at JFK to pick up her daughter when she found out the plane had crashed. As the grief overwhelmed her body, she collapsed, arms and legs flailing. She screamed and wailed. It was the kind of grief that hits you in the gut and slams you down to the ground. It can’t be contained in the flesh and just explodes.
No one tried to stop this mother or calm her down or move her. Instead, security guards and regular folk created a circle around her and stood watch over her. I don’t even think they were conscious of the cameras around them. As I remember, they joined hands. As her body writhed on the floor, the circle continued to shift and make way for her.
As a victim/survivor of many things, I’ve found it more and more empowering to acknowledge that I was victimized by people who had, at times, absolute control over me. Recognizing this fact has helped to strip away the shame.
Whenever a victim/survivor tells their story, in public or in private, it is an act of courage. It is the ultimate act of trust and belief in humanity, despite the immediate evidence of the trauma that is being lived and relived in the mind and body. It is a powerful statement of an individual acknowledging what has happened to them and asking for validation and justice. It is a rallying cry of, “I am a victim. This happened to me. Now what are you, society, going to do?”
Whether you call yourself a victim or a survivor is up to you. The point is that one should tell their story as many times as needed to be heard and to heal. Don’t let someone else’s cowardice silence you. Don’t let their cry of “Don’t be a victim” stop your healing process.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a young Black woman with short black hair. She is looking directly into the camera with a tear running down her cheek.]