Am I A Victim Or A Survivor?

Note: this blog post discusses, but doesn’t go into detail about, trauma resulting from being the victim and/or survivor of abuse. If that’s tricky for you, ignore this blog post but watch my Twitter for other, sexier posts in the future!


Originally, this blog post was going to be one word long, and that single word was going to be “yes”. But that seemed a tad bit brief for a blog post, so I thought I’d go into a little more detail.

Y’all know I dislike binaries. The victim/survivor binary might not look so much like a binary, but it is one, because it’s a pair of uncomfortable, mutually exclusive boxes, neither of which I can cram my traumatised little self into – and I’m sure that’s the case for other people, too.

A lot of people who have survived things want to call themselves survivors, and I personally have very little interest in policing the language that individuals use to describe their experiences of the world. I also understand the impulse to reframe trauma so that instead of being something that happened to you, it’s something you actively engaged with and survived. That puts you in more control of the world around you, and highlights how vicious of a fight it can be to make it through trauma alive. I get it.

What I don’t get is the insistence that survivors of trauma are only that, and not also victims of it. People shy away from the word “victim” as though it’s contagious, and I know that they’re trying not to step on the autonomy of already-traumatised individuals by using language they disprefer or by implying that they simply passively endured their trauma. The problem comes when someone wants to describe themselves as a victim and then they’re contradicted by people who think that the word “victim” is disempowering.

Listen, for other people, I’m sure it is disempowering, and it’s not the word I default to for referring to every individual survivor (I usually tend to refer to them with their names). But for me, personally, it’s not disempowering. It feels accurate. I don’t feel like I passively endured my trauma – I feel like I fought with it, and I do feel like I survived – but I do feel like I have been a victim. I have been intentionally selected from a world full of people by abusers looking for the easiest target within arms’ reach. I have been victimised repeatedly, assigned the experience of the victim by people who had more power than me to decide our roles. For me, the word “victim” is helpful.

The thing is, I survived my trauma, sure. I fought against it wherever I had the strength. But I also survived by doing things I’m not proud of, lying and screaming and hiding, and through unique combinations of privilege and sheer luck. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t have survived my trauma, and that’s no fault of their own. I don’t want to imply that I’m stronger than people who die at the hands of their abusers by celebrating my feat of survival. I do want to celebrate my survival, don’t get me wrong, but that usually involves a sarcastic toast to people who’ve wanted me dead every birthday and graduation, rather than any particular label I give myself.

The other thing that gets under my skin about victim discourse is the notion of “playing the victim”. This is a sort of vague and nebulous concept that seems to be applied at random to people who are having a whine, people who are rebelling against legitimate injustice, people who are disagreeing with you, etc., etc. Someone who is “playing the victim” is implied to be illegitimately casting themselves in the role of victim when in fact they are the antagonist, but it’s a very convenient trio of words to apply to someone you are in the process of abusing. The way that “playing the victim” gets thrown around creates an even more hostile environment for people recovering from trauma to discuss their experiences, because we already do enough second-guessing ourselves about who the true aggressor was (hint: it wasn’t the traumatised person) and we already convince ourselves that our feelings of hurt, mistrust, fear, injustice, anger, grief, etc., are a melodramatic response to a situation in which we weren’t really the victim.

“Victim” is a helpful word for me because it helps me to understand my role as someone who was victimised, who was harmed by inescapable power dynamics and choices made by human beings. “Survivor” is a helpful word for me because it reminds me that I fought, that I didn’t just allow my trauma to happen to me but that I actively survived the process of victimisation. I think we need both words! I just also think that if you ever correct someone’s self-description from “victim” to “survivor”, you’re being a dick, because while both of those words can be accurate, it’s polite to use the one that a person actually supplies to you – kinda like pronouns, and names, and most other principles of addressing or referring to someone politely. 

(That’s pretty much the only politeness rule I know, on account of being an autistic gremlin with little interest in social niceties but some interest in communicating compassionately and effectively with other humans. Just… believe people when they tell you who they are.)

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