Yesterday, @suey_park had an interesting discussion on Twitter about allowing those who have been raped to claim the title “victim” if they want to, which evolved into a really interesting discussion about the pros and cons of “survivor” or “victim” as a label. (So take that, “high-minded” academics & white mainstream feminists who think serious theory work can’t be done on social media)
I was intrigued by the conversation, thinking a lot of people made very good points. It wasn’t until I had to pause in the middle of listening to Citizen Radio today and start tweeting about my own assault, though, that I finally pinpointed what bothers me about either narrative, and why it bothers me. A few people in the conversation had been saying that they didn’t feel like either, and I was thought about that a bit, but it took a little time for me to realize that yes, that’s me too.
You see, I thought that the objectification, the whole robbing-me-of-personal-agency was done when the rape was over. In my naivete, I assumed at that point that rape was something that had happened to me, a thing in my life, that I would have to deal with. An unfair, horrific, unjust thing, to be sure. Something I had never asked for and did not deserve. A shattered-ness leaving me picking up pieces while my rapist went merrily on his way. The first assault was more traumatic up front, the second has proved to be ongoing trauma, leaving me with terrible trust issues that have even affected my relationship with my current wonderful and perfectly trustworthy partner.
But neither assault is a definitive part of who I am. You can know me pretty well without knowing that I was ever assaulted, and I wouldn’t say you didn’t “really” know me. I don’t feel that I am a victim or a survivor. I have rape in my past. I was raped. But I am not that rape. Therefore, I don’t have to pick one word to sum up my self post-rape.
Yet so many times, when someone speaks out about their rape experience, other people try to sum them up in one word, making their entire life story revolve around the rape. That’s just not a fair presentation of how a person’s life goes.
If you want to claim the label “victim” or “survivor,” do it. I want you to do exactly what you have to do to deal with your experiences. And I’m here to support you.
Which brings me to another assumption. Whenever I’ve gone through something awful, whether rape, death of a loved one, an illness, whatever, people looooove to tell me that now I can be “a resource” to others (this is especially present in Christian circles, where everyone has to find some all-wise reason for suffering). They’re always very nice and helpful people, who are just trying to make me feel better, to give me back a sense of worth that, hey, I didn’t know I’d lost.
Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a resource.
Actually, I am not anything other than ME. I am an individual unique person. If I choose to help someone else through a similar experience to my own, that is fine. That is my right. If I don’t, I’m not somehow letting you down by failing to fulfill the role of “resource.”
It’s true that my past experiences inform what I do. I’m a writer. I work through my experiences by writing. If that writing then in turn helps others, great! Although more likely I will get called “brave.” That’s another label that sucks. I’m not being brave. I’m just doing what I do. I’m processing in the only way that really works for me.
Also, “brave” or “strong” or similar words apply value judgment to different ways of dealing with assault. Does this mean someone who doesn’t write about their experience is a coward? It implies there’s a right and wrong way to live your life post-rape. I’m sorry but that is simply untrue. Until we stray into realms of self-destructive behavior or thought patterns, you can’t place value judgment on post-rape actions. Even then, when a person chooses to harm themselves or blame themselves, the last thing you need to do is heap on the blame. We can recognize that those behaviors are destructive, and seek to help that person find a more healing path, but placing a value judgment on the person based on how they’re dealing with their rape is still wrong.
We need a more realistic view of rape. It is life-changing, yes. But it is not something that defines a person’s self. It is not something that makes that person’s story public property, to be labelled and prophesied about. You simply do not have the right to decide how a sexual assault fits into another person’s life story.
There’s a difference between on the one hand providing helpful resources, building organizations and anti-rape movements, and evolving ways of thinking about rape, and on the other forcing people to assume labels and step into pre-formed narratives. We need to develop theory and praxis to fight rape, to fight victim-blaming, to offer many potential paths of healing to people post-rape. We can still have conversations, we can still, if we choose, tell our own stories in hopes that others will connect to them. And that’s perhaps the best starting place because everyone’s personal stories have much, much more complexity to them than a simple label. But you don’t have to tell your story, because no one has a right to your story except you.
My willingness to discuss my rape experiences (on my own terms, within my own boundaries) doesn’t mean anyone else has any kind of right to classify or define my story for me. So go away with your “victim”, your “survivor”, your “resource.” I’m not a thing for you to label. I am still me, still a person, just like I was before I unwittingly let a rapist into my home.