At the beginning of my violence prevention career I was taught to call those who were raped, survivors. I liked the idea. Instead of being victims, they were survivors, triumphant in their ability to continue, to persevere, to manage the trauma they had endured. It sounded empowering. It sounded respectful.
I still believe the word survivor is empowering and respectful, but after twelve years of using the term I attended the End Violence Against Women International conference in Baltimore, and listened to a powerful speaker challenge my use of that term. Claudia J. Bayliff , Project Attorney at the National Judicial Education Program, was talking about the power of language and how it shapes our response to sexual violence.
During her presentation, Bayliff used an argument made the previous year by R. Clifton Spargo that the word survivor was actually dangerous if not understood within the framework of victimization. Quoting Spargo, she said, “What we do for victims—how we think about them, how we respond to them—is fundamental to the very notion of justice.” In other words, the word victim is connected to our cultural understanding of violation, and our legal systems ability to assist those who are violated.
Bayliff was reminding the audience that actively using the word “victim” provides a powerful tool for combating violence. She was identifying the power of language to shape how we think—especially about sexual violence. Claudia Bayliff inspired me to think about my language, words I had just taken for granted. It was a powerful gift.
As someone trying to be an Agent of Change, I have to be thoughtful about my language, and to do that I need others to help me be critical of it, but in a supportive and constructive manner. Bayliff’s presentation did not leave me with the belief that one word is “better” or more “right” than the other; rather she left me desiring to be constantly vigilant about the power of the language I choose to use.
Director, We End Violence