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On The Power of Language

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

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.

-Jeff Bucholtz
Director, We End Violence

The Language We Use: Victim and Survivor

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

The language we use: Victim and Survivor

At the recent training for campus law enforcement officers sponsored by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, I talked about the history and use of the terms survivor and victim. Law enforcement officers have historically used the word victim when referring to those who have been sexually assaulted. While this term is technically accurate, it contributes to a feeling of powerlessness for those who have been assaulted. For the people around them–friends, family, classmates–the word victim contributes to the feeling that their friend is irreparably damaged, which can become, at least temporarily, an image that replaces their true image of their friend. And for the general population, the word victim contributes to a feeling of horror about rape that interferes with thinking about why it happens and how it can be prevented. It contributes to keeping the focus on the person who has been assaulted rather than the person who is committing the crime.

Advocates and activists working to support those who have been assaulted–and to end sexual violence–realized these problems with the word victim and began using, and asking others to use, the word survivor. Survivor imparts a sense of movement, of moving on beyond the event, and of reclamation, taking back your life. It’s a strong word and can help those who have been assaulted begin to regain the power that was taken from them. It distinguishes them from people who did not survive. The strength of the word offers others an image of a person who has been through a traumatic event, but who will, with time, overcome adversity and heal.

Survivor has become accepted and widely used, including in the world of law enforcement. I believe it has made a difference. I think it has done, is doing, what advocates and activists hoped it would do, and I would like to see that continue.

However, I now believe that we have reached a point of understanding in the field of sexual violence response and prevention that allows us to use both terms. A sexual assault survivor is both a victim of a crime and a survivor of a crime. There are times when one is appropriate, and times when the other would be better. Some of the officers in that training may have never used survivor. I asked them to consider the reasons they should. Some of the officers may have worked hard to switch to survivor and I suggested they could relax and not worry so much about using victim when it fits naturally into the context of their work.

Our goal is to keep improving how we respond to and support survivors. The language we use is important, so, as our understanding of sexual violence increases, we must continually think about the meaning and effect of our words.

by, Carol Mosley, Director, We End Violence


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