Sunday, July 11, 2010

Victims and Survivors (from Erica)

A few days ago, Emily raised some of the potential topics of discussion for the theme of "After the Attack." One of them, in particular, struck a chord with me- the distinction between "victim" and "survivor" and what that distinction means to individuals, social conceptions of life after violence, and to women as a whole.

This is a widely discussed theme in feminist academia, with everyone from bell hooks to Andrea Dworkin to Camille Paglia to Suzie Bright chiming in about what constitutes an attack (Paglia, for example, essentially argues that there's no such thing as rape- in the linked article, check around footnote 40) and what that means for those who were attacked. As part of the movement to stop domestic abuse, this is a topic we deal with on a daily basis. Since I know that one of our new writers is preparing an article about a similar topic, I'll discuss my own experiences with these terms as a starting point.

When I was working at a domestic abuse shelter in New Hampshire, we taught our new volunteers and advocates that "victim" and "survivor" were terms that existed as part of a continuum (see this website for an admittedly pop psychology example). People generally came to us feeling that they were victims, and as they healed from their experiences, they gradually transitioned into survivors. Of course, it was a flexible continuum- one day you might feel like a survivor, and the next more like a victim. The important aspect of the continuum wasn't the labeling itself. It was the conceptualization of healing as a process unique to the person experiencing it that mattered. The "victim" state meant feeling things like disempowered, worthless, beaten down, helpless, or simply done. The "survivor" state referred to a person's sense of strength, ability to cope, self-advocacy, and even simply normalcy.

In my current job- Installation Victim Advocate for the U.S. Army in southwestern Germany- these words have caused me more trouble than I would have expected. The job title itself sets up certain expectations about who needs or seeks my services. At the very least, it suggests that anyone who comes to see me should be comfortable with having the label attached to them. At the same time, simply changing the job title to Survivor Advocate, while in theory encouraging my clients to see themselves as overcoming the odds, falls into the same trap of excluding the clients who don't feel like survivors or who are having particular difficulty in getting the services they want.

Context, to me, is also very important. Clients dealing with sexual assault and domestic abuse always run up against unsympathetic systems- doctors who are inconsiderate about performing tests for STIs, judges who see self-defense as evidence of mutual combattancy- and one's ability to navigate these systems effectively can have a huge impact on how one is feeling that particular day. In the military context, as I'm learning, part of the reason for the label "victim" in my job title is that the unsympathetic systems are far more disempowering than civilian systems tend to be- leaving my clients feeling enraged and helpless as decisions are made for them. A client wanting to come back to the United States (called Early Return of Dependent, or ERD), for example, has to have the permission of the unit commander to do so, and the abuser is the one responsible for filing all the paperwork- which, naturally, s/he drags out as much as possible. Many of the decision-making moments that, in the civilian world, could provide people opportunities to perceive themselves as in control of their situations are unavailable in the military context. A client can request an ERD, or request to stay, but the final decision is made by someone who is under no obligation to listen to the client's wishes. Do my clients really have the opportunity to become survivors under these circumstances?

One final thought to wrap this up: I've spent most of this post talking about the continuum of victim- and survivorhood as though survivorhood is the ultimate goal. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that I believe very strongly in individual empowerment. But that's a worthwhile question to consider. Should survivorhood be the hope for everyone after an attack? Or is encouraging a journey to survivorhood a way of reducing a person's autonomy, by expecting that their story conclude in a certain way?


  1. I'm glad you've asked this question about the value of working toward survivorhood. While I think the idea of survivorhood is ultimately more freeing for most people, I worry that people outside the situation too often try to rush people to that state. Or that others try to downplay the fact that a crime has taken place by saying, "crying doesn't help," or "the person who did x to you isn't all bad," or "you need to forgive or the greater sin is on you."

    In my experience, when someone has hurt you that deeply, forgiveness takes time. If someone assaults you or someone you love, simply getting to a point where you don't want revenge and where you feel safe sleeping at night may take years. PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is no laughing matter.

  2. What a fascinating job you have Erica! It seems full of challenges and opportunities for empowerment and thought-provoking discussions!

    I agree with Emily's post, while the idea of survivorhood is ultimately freeing for most people, the pressure to reach that state may throw the whole healing process off. To each their own rhythm, be it at work, in relationships, in healing and forgiveness.