[Image: The spires of a wrought iron gate, with golden light in the background.]
Content warning: Rape, sexual assault, sexual violence.
When oppressed people speak out about the suffering we’ve endured, some like to accuse us of “playing the victim.” I thought about this when reading an article about sexual violence posted today in Everyday Feminism. In it, the author notes the trend of referring to people who have been raped or otherwise sexually violated as “survivors” rather than “victims.” She acknowledges the good intentions behind this language, but urges that “survival” status should not be forced upon others, as it can invalidate those who do see themselves as the victims of a crime.
I immediately connected with this sentiment. I’d been referring to myself and others who have endured sexual assault as survivors rather than victims, but I do feel strongly that I was a victim of a crime for which I can never receive justice. The man who sexually molested me for years when I was a young child never had to answer to his crime, and died a respected member of his community. The impact of this experience has been devastating, ultimately resulting in me cutting off all contact with my blood family (with the support of my therapist).
I am a survivor only in the literal sense that I am still alive. The cumulative impact of depression, gender dysphoria, and the daily micro-aggressions I experience as a queer black trans person make it difficult enough to get through each day. Being told that I’m “playing the victim” when speaking about my experiences, and being told that I need to forgive my abuser, just add insult to injury.
I’ve seen troubling examples of this attitude in the animal rights community (though I’m sure it exists in all activist communities, that’s the one I’m most involved with currently). Women who have been sexually harassed by other activists have been silenced, accused of exaggerating or outright lying, told they are being “divisive,” and otherwise shamed for bringing attention to abusive members of the community. Women have been told that their suffering is trivial compared to the oppression of non-human animals. Sexist messaging only amplifies the message that women’s bodies are more important than their words.
While I’m not a woman, I was living as a girl at the time I was molested, and many young boys are molested as well. Adult men are also sexually assaulted, of course, and their reports need to be taken seriously. Sexual violence is wrong regardless of the gender the victim – or survivor, if they choose that language – and that includes trans and nonbinary people. The Everyday Feminism infographic on “How Do I Know If I’ve Been Raped?” is informative. (The abuse I experienced did not meet the current legal definition of rape, as there was no penetration, but it was still sexual abuse.)
Telling people to “stop playing the victim” does nothing to abolish the rape culture that results in so many people becoming victims in the first place. Stop derailing and diminishing when people speak out about sexual assault. Thank them for trusting you with their stories, and ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
What people can do to help me is respect that I need a lot of solitude and personal space right now. Writing is my primary form of activism currently. Deriding people who post on social media as “armchair activists” is ableist and often unfair. I’m doing what I need to do to survive.