Victim or Survivor

There’s a thought-provoking post here about what we call people who have been raped.

For most of my life, people who were raped were simply “victims.” Then I went through training to work with those people – mostly women – and was told that “survivor” is the better term, because it focuses on their strength and agency. So I capitulated and used “survivor” to describe them and myself.

But it never felt right when I used it to describe myself. I have always been keenly aware when I say it that I am using someone else’s term. While I’ve obviously survived (in the sense that I didn’t die) and even thrived (I’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish most of my goals), the term “rape survivor” hangs on me like an ill-fitted suit.

I think I prefer to say I was a victim of rape, and that post does a good job of stating the why of that. For the most part, I want it known that was done to me was a crime. I only became a victim because someone chose to victimize me. Calling myself a “survivor” takes him out of the picture, and why should he get that benefit?

I’m curious what others think.

(That said, I support everyone’s right to describe their rape in terms that fit them best. I’m not out to convince anyone they should consider herself a victim if she doesn’t feel the word fits.)



  1. I agree. I have never thought of myself as a survivor, either. Obviously, I’m not dead, but my life (luckily) was not in peril. However, some intangible part of me DID die. Like a phoenix, I live on, but a little different. Who knows? Maybe even a little less. On the other hand, I was quite lucky and for many women their lives may have been in peril. Were that the case for me, I think I would then call myself a survivor.

  2. demogirl06

    “-women are encouraged to drop the label of victim, which implies a crime was willfully done against her, to survivor, which implies ‘yeah you got raped, but at least you’re alive’. Takes the focus away from the perpetrator. Suggests raped woman should be grateful her rape was only a MERE RAPE and not a rape/murder”

    That quote sums it up best for me.

    I’m not into the “survivor” word. I think it downplays the truth of rape acts, and simultaneously exaggerates most rape contexts. Of course, if you are jumped on the street and raped at knife point, USE the word survivor. I wouldn’t have to think too hard to understand. But if I ever find myself not willfully coerced into sex with a man, I would consider myself victimized, exploited, harmed, injured, tricked, fooled, and any number of other situations in which rape can occur, but in which my SURVIVAL was not exactly on the line.

    I could downplay the meaning of “survive,” if we want to split hairs. I survive… I continue to exist in spite of danger/hardship. I do this every day when I cross streets, when my immune system fights off potential invaders, when I walk through a bad neighborhood, when I drink too much and puke my guts out all night. None of these circumstances “victimized” me. These are not person-to-person situations.

  3. Ali

    I can see the value in both terms, depending on the context. As you related, you learned to use the term “survivor” in the context of counseling women struggling to cope / come to terms with the terrible thing that happened to them. In that instance, using “survivor” instead of “victim” may be the best choice. The goal is to help the woman move beyond her trauma, not to remind her that she’s been victimized.

    In general, though, and in places like media reports, “victim” is certainly the more appropriate term. If nothing else, it’s stylistically consistent usage when referring to one who has fallen afoul of a crime — a newspaper wouldn’t report on a “carjacking survivor”, they’d say “the victim of a carjacking.” Rape is a crime; the raped are victims of that crime.

    Or, to get denotational about it: the dictionary defines victim as “a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency” and survivor as “a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.” Different words for different circumstances.

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