No, Rape Victims Are Not “Survivors”

David Forsmarck and Jenn Q. Public have both objected to my dismissal of the term “survivor” when dealing with victims of rape. My original statement, which I stand by, reads thus:

“Survivor” is a term we typically employ to those who have endured the horrors of genocide, war, or famine, and managed to come out alive. Sexual assault is not a lethal act, nor is it a life-defining event, akin to suffering in Auschwitz. Feminists would like it to be a traumatic event: like Hamas, the more of their alleged constituents that sufferer [sic], the more that they can manipulate people’s emotions — but it’s a terrible debasement of the term survivor to apply it to those who are simply victims.

Jenn takes an approach of empowerment, arguing that one should never refer to oneself as a victim:

Being a survivor means refusing to remain tethered to a traumatic experience. It has nothing to do with the feminist racket, and everything to do with individual strength and resilience.

This isn’t a crazy argument — and its essence is positive — but as someone who values specificity in language, I don’t like it. How can one not survive  rape — a non-lethal act? David unwittingly reveals this pitfall:

No, Alex, we also say people are survivors of plane crashes,car crashes, house fires, cancer, and pretty much anything that people die from. And women die at the hands of a rapist on a daily basis. Maybe not from a “date-rapist,” but from a certain kind of sexual predator. Ted Bundy was a rapist. The FBI has a whole section set up to deal with it—see Silence of the Lambs sometime.

Characteristic to plane crashes, car crashes, house fires, cancer, and other things that people die from: people die from them. David’s example, Ted Bundy, illustrates my point: he was not only a rapist, but a murderer. We would say that someone survived Bundy’s brand of aggression because he was a killer. But it is impossible not to survive a non-lethal act. Women die at the hands of rapists, but the rape is coincidental to the fact that they could have died. Women die at the hands of vegetarians, zookeepers, and Deadheads, too — but when evaluating whether one “survived” an act, we have to look at whether they may not have come out alive. All else being held equal, rape is not that kind of experience: it is simply not looking at death in the eye. It is undoubtedly a horrific experience, of course — but it is a particular kind of horror: one of violation, of total loss of physical and sexual control. It is manifestly different than, say, a house fire, or suffering in a concentration camp.

I believe that the term “victim” is appropriate, here. That doesn’t mean that a raped woman should turn her victimhood into a lifestyle, but there is legitimate victimhood out there, and we’d do well to remember that.

Finally, David writes:

And to categorically say that sexual assault is not a life-defining event is just wrong.

My point is that it shouldn’t be. Anyone who turns victimhood into a lifestyle is surrendering their autonomy to others. And I have known women who have integrated their experiences into their consciousness without allowing it to define their lives. It spits on the human capacity for resilience to say that there are certain women who simply can’t muster up that strength.

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