“Victim” is a Tetchy Word When We Are Talking About Rape

30 Apr

I just read Erin Matson’s new piece on how to talk about rape, and I like it a lot. For anti-rape and anti-violence activists it’s a primer, but as the post notes, the basic things she’s talking about doing – don’t use language of consensual sex to describe rape, don’t victim-blame, don’t use the passive voice in a way that makes the rapist themselves disappear from the dialogue – are still huge problems in terms of how we talk about rape, especially in the media. I wrote an entire Master’s thesis on how the media communicates rape and I barely scratched the surface, that’s how big a problem it is.

I realized while reading it, however, that I find the word “victim” in the context of rape really jarring. It startles me to see it there, over and over. The word is being used to give really excellent advice, but I still struggle with it. I’ve shifted from domestic policy to international human rights work in the past year, and we almost never use “victim.” We describe someone as a “victim” only in the context of the legal case itself – the victim went to the police, the victim experienced these specific things, etc. After that, we only ever use the word “survivor.”

We use the word survivor instead of victim because that is what the women we work with become following the immediate aftermath of rape and sexual assault. They don’t want to spend their entire lives identifying or being identified as a victim. Survivor, for obvious reasons, has a different and much more empowering set of connotations.

Matson’s piece is mostly about communicating that immediate aftermath, and the use of the word “victim” in that context is appropriate – it helps classify what happened as a crime and the person it happened to as in need of medical and legal attention. But it occurred to me that I rarely see the word “rape survivor” in US media. Why is that?

Part of the reason is likely that, while rape is an overwhelming epidemic here, it’s a “domestic crime.” It’s a “private crime,” it belongs in a soft, female sphere in terms of how we classify criminal acts, and we’ve had to work incredibly hard to get it recognized as a criminal act at all. In an international context, however, rape and mass rape are often a weapon of war, or occur in waves following climate disasters that the countries in question don’t have the infrastructure to address in a timely manner (Haiti’s tent cities and the mass rape that occurred there following the earthquake a few years ago are one example of this). Political unrest and attempts to up-end life for political gain in that context are another example – that happened inGuinea a few years ago. At that point, follow-up is about much more than an individual person; unlike survivors here, these are large groups of survivors easily identifiable as having rape in common, and what happened to them and how it is dealt with in the long-term has implications and consequences for the entire country. Rape survivors here are not given the sense that they are a unified group. Rape in the US is viewed as an individual’s narrative, while in many other countries, the narrative is a group narrative. The media follow-up is longer term.

In the US media, once someone is no longer a victim, but a survivor, once the immediate aftermath has passed, there’s no follow-up. The woman who was raped by two police officers in New York City, whose trial was in every paper in the country every day for months, has disappeared. I have no idea what happened to her, and I’ve never seen an article on her again, although the rapists still show up in the news occasionally, mostly to complain about how raping a girl really ruined their lives. The Steubinville rape case – will we ever hear another word about the girl who survived it? In our quest to give the victims privacy – which is something the media only even pays lip service too, repeatedly releasing the names of even underaged victims – are we failing to create a space for people to become survivors? Rape survivors sometimes carve out their own space for that, creating support groups for themselves and for one another, making preventing rape and changing the conversation a mission. Another woman raped by a New York cop is doing just that. But the media is only interested in them  -certainly most interested in them – for as long as they’re a victim. Once a victim becomes a survivor, the story disappears.

It isn’t that way with every crime. The victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing are already survivors, with stories of their courage and their determination to move forward at immediate, lightning-speed already dominating the coverage of their experience, that moment when they were victims already relegated to a yesterday so long gone we can’t remember it. We can only remember that they’re survivors, and that makes us all stronger.

Is there room for that in the conversation about rape? Do survivors want to talk? Can we make their stories heard? Do we want to hear? Most of all, I think it’s fascinating how many experiences that are largely had by women – abortion, rape – have such clearly defined, narrow, and limited permitted narratives. What are we allowed to talk about, what are we encouraged to talk about – and what do we actually want to talk about?

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