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  • Yaicha Ocampo

Victim v. Survivor

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – a famous idiom engraved into the consciousness of children along with rhymes such as Miss Mary Mack and Ring around the Rosie.

The importance of semantics, or the meaning of words, is not taught in early childhood education. Children are, instead, taught to break down words into syllables and sound them out. This process is known as phonetics, or the pronunciation of words, and is emulated in our culture.

It is almost as if society values appearing educated as more important than actually being well informed.

If one were to ask a student what they remember most about their early memories, the words that were used to describe them would be recalled. This can be contributed to the still developing mind and body of younger children – making these labels crucial in the construction of their identity and self-image.

It is because of this vulnerability that younger children are more susceptible to trauma. For instance, rape.

Rape, as defined by the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, is the “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with anybody part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim”.

Transformative justice is a technique used to identify the root cause of conflict including the criminal justice system, family law and environmental law. It identifies different societal constraints that foster oppression such as racism and classism. This technique advocates for community and government programs that provide inclusive education with an atmosphere of acceptance in order for one to learn from their actions, take responsibility and learn from their mistakes.

A part of transformative justice relies on rhetoric – the language used to describe all aspects of the conflict. In cases of rape, diction is extremely important.

Victim - a word that is accompanied by “helpless”, “passive”, “damaged”, “powerless". A sort of vulnerability and dependency is also a part of the baggage of victimhood.

Women who had survived sexual assault were initially labeled as victims of male violence in order to get the government and public to care. During the 1970s and 1980s, it was a label meant to evoke sympathy in order to help raise funding for refuges and centers that would provide support for those who had experienced domestic and sexual violence.

An anonymous writer for had this to say about the label Victim.

“I prefer the word ‘victim’ because it places the focus back where it belongs: on the (expletive) rapist who turned me into a victim by raping me.”

Survivor - it is a term that has been increasingly used to describe those who have experienced sexual assault. A word that evokes respect, and an understanding that the person has conquered a hardship that one may or may not be able to relate to – a triumph of hope over despair – a "reclamation" of one’s trauma.

Liz Kelly in her book Surviving Sexual Violence introduced this label in coalition with sexual assault. Kelly compiled her book with interviews from sixty different women belonging to various races, economic backgrounds and ages and who had experiences a range of sexual violence over their lifetimes.

According to her book, the purpose was to emphasize “similarities and differences between forms of sexual violence; the ways women define their experiences; and the strategies women use in resisting, coping with and surviving sexual violence.”

Arguments against the use of Survivor emphasizes that Rape is not always character building – one may not triumph and accomplishment something great. A woman does not have to publicly declare the abuse she has suffered in order to deserve support.

The objectification of women in the media is a major factor in the indifference of society. The far-reaching influence of porn, the manipulation of women’s bodies in order to sell products, and the socialization of women to be accommodating of men all contribute to the assumption of women consenting to the “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person.”

Transformative justice focuses on these root problems. To end sexual violence, one must first recognize these aspects of society as problems, label them as such and then brainstorm strategies in order to fix them.

Survivor celebrates the individual, but Victim recognizes the enormity of the action and the oppressive system women are subjected to. Because of the social implication attached to words, it is important for those who have experienced Rape to self-identify as either a Survivor or Victim.

Regardless of their preference, one must be conscientious of their language because the subject, itself, demands care.

If you had just experienced a traumatic situation, would you prefer to be labeled as a survivor or victim?

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