EmPOWERMENt: Repurposing survivor-victim language
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
For as long as I’ve been a feminist, I’ve resented the term survivor being used in gender-based violence (GBV) discourse. When mainstream feminists made survivor the dominant and default title for GBV experiencers, they were so concerned with how to use language that they overlooked how language uses us. The exclusionary capacity of the term survivor exonerates perpetrators, disregards victims who did not survive, and deprives people of a choice when it is crucial we give them just that. This isn’t just a matter of semantics – language can enslave or empower depending on its use.
The ambiguous definition of the term survivor disrespects the gravity of GBV. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a survivor “outlives another or others […] after some disaster”. The concrete noun survivor is a nominalisation (derivative) of the intransitive verb survive. Intransitive verbs do not require direct objects (a receiver of the verb). Without a direct object, the survivor becomes the agent (initiator of the event). The survivor is therefore responsible for the “disaster”, leaving ample opportunity for perpetrators to recast their victim as the accused.
When the term survivor was popularised in mainstream feminism, it inadvertently endorsed the notion that GBV is an abstract force. The definition of survivor fails to identify the “things” survived, welcoming the interlocutor (participant in the discussion) to conceive of the perpetrator however they wish. This generates the rhetoric that perpetrators hide behind bushes, decked out in horns, a raincoat, and a pitchfork for a third leg.
If the perpetrator is a monster, the survivor is a damsel in distress. Men are eager to protect her, unless it is from themselves. This is due to heteropatriarchal society unconditionally caring for male moral injuries. Such himpathy prioritises preserving the perpetrator’s reputation, making justice a mere afterthought.
For the survivor, victimhood is not implied, even though survivor is a proper subset of victim, meaning every survivor is a victim but not every victim can be a survivor. Statements can be made like “x is one of GBV’s survivors” where the meaning is “x is resilient”. Accordingly, those who didn’t survive would be identified as “one of GBV’s victims”, indicating that they were not resilient enough to survive.
Declarations of survival grammatically take form as a progressive auxiliary verb followed by a past participle like “x had survived”. The possibility of revictimization is discredited and, as philosopher Manne articulates, the intention is to “rewrite” the victim’s “mind in the aftermath”, urging them to move on.
Colloquially, survivors have “a knack for surviving things unscathed” (OED), meaning that the survivor is disposed to survive when they are expected to perish. Consequently, they develop post-traumatic conditions like survivor syndrome, which has “frequently delayed” symptoms of “guilt” and a “disintegrating personality”. Grappling with your identity after experiencing GBV is difficult as it is, and being fed a survivor complex complicates this further.
Natalie Rachel, who considers herself an “authority in trauma-informed culture”, admits that therapists prefer the survivor archetype since they “seem to be easier to work with because they have drive and desire to change, whereas the victim types seem to lack will-power and the ability to self-direct.” In essence, victims are perceived as a liability because they defy gender roles by feeling entitled to emotional attendance and other feminine-coded goods. The fact remains that a survivor is still a victim – they’re a perfect victim. They do not care-monger or respond to injustice with righteous anger and act on the defensive; they survive without giving misogynists reason to wish they hadn’t.
OED identifies a victim as “a person who is put to death or subjected to torture by another; one who suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment”. Plainly, a victim is a patient (undergoer of an action), redirecting the onus back onto the perpetrator. A victim is only a victim vis-à-vis a villain, meaning the perpetrator remains the oppressor so long as the victim is oppressed.
In the definition, the progressive tense “suffers” makes it clear that once you’ve been victimised, you are always a victim. Victimhood persists past the time the trauma occurred, so revictimization and prolonged trauma-responses remain a possibility.
All told, the prevailing title survivor in GBV discourse endangers the term victim as well as the people that identify as one. People may wish to identify as either or none depending on their stage of recovery, but that choice remains theirs to take.