Why is Victim a Dirty Word?

by Cara on December 13, 2008

in rape and sexual assault, violence against women and girls

I just read this news story about actress Kristen Bell saying that she never wants to play a “victim.” 1

The rhetoric surrounding the word “victim” is some that has constantly fascinated me.  I often see it used in a disparaging sense, like above.  And it raises a lot of questions.

I understand the desire by those who have been raped or abused to use the word “survivor” instead of “victim,” to take the focus away from what someone else did to them and gave them no choice about, to something positive that they themselves have accomplished.  But let us be honest for a minute: is there more to it than that?  Is there really something there that has to do with shame, with constant admonishments either directed specifically towards them or towards women everywhere, saying “don’t be a victim”?  Is there a desire to get away from that embarrassing, horrible word?  I tend to use the word “survivor” myself.  And I have to wonder.

And if it’s about shame, about stepping away from “victim,” is there any way for there to not be a touch of self-blame in the reasoning?

I don’t know.  I’m not saying that those who use the word “survivor” are all a bunch of self-blamers; I think those who use the word “survivor,” on average, have probably come the farthest by at least being able to acknowledge what was done to them and process it to a point of making a language transition.  And I think that you can identify as “survivor” without wholly rejecting and dismissing “victim.”  But the “victim” rhetoric still can’t be ignored.

“Don’t be a victim.”  “I won’t be a victim.”  “Women always want to play the victim.”

The insult in “victim” is that victims are weak and helpless.  Victims are whiners, attention-seekers, cry-babies.  They want to dwell on the negative.

Well I’ve got a question: haven’t we the right to cry, and seek attention, to seek acknowledgment?  Who the hell is to tell us, all of these non-therapists, that we’re “dwelling” and that’s somehow wrong?  Why is what someone else has done used as an example of our inability to fend for ourselves? And why are we considered weak?  Are strong women not raped and abused?  And so what if they weren’t?  So what if only “weak” women were the ones to become victims?

Why identify “victim” so closely with “weak” if there’s not some sort of admonishment to take responsibility in there?  After all, isn’t that exactly what’s behind the “women always want to play the victim” taunt/complaint?  It’s saying that there is responsibility on behalf of women to be taken, and the problem is that the phrase is almost always used when the woman is in fact a victim.  In those cases, it’s telling women to stand up and take responsibility for something over which they have none.  It’s telling them to reject the idea that they were an innocent in the situation, even when they were.  Telling them to reject “victim” is in fact telling them to reject the truth of their experience.

So yes, acting as though being a victim is a bad thing is in fact much of the time a way of simply blaming the victim.

Even those who sympathize with victims have a tendency to use language which  treats us as something dirty and wrong.  To be raped is to be “degraded,” to be “used.”  Physical and sexual violence is supposed to destroy us, even cause an emotional death.  And whether it does or doesn’t, we’re still reacting improperly in someone’s eyes.  The fact is that my rapist attempted to degrade me, and as Melissa says, he degraded himself.  But I was not degraded.  I am not degraded.  So is it any wonder that when we associate words like this with rape victims, that rape victims want to be victims even less than before?

Of course no one wants to become a victim in the first place.  That’s just common sense.  And of course we want women to be seen for more than victimhood; there is much more to us, our lives, our feelings, and our personalities than the instance(s) of violence and abuse we may or may not experience.

That doesn’t mean that victims be admonished or shamed for someone else’s actions, or expected to cover them up as an example of our own fortitude. It doesn’t mean that our stories don’t deserve to be told, among many. And it doesn’t mean that we should be seen as people lacking strength, as Kristin Bell explicitly frames us.

The only thing wrong with being a victim is the fact that someone else has inflicted suffering on us. Being a victim can happen to anyone. It happens for reasons entirely beyond our control and responsibility. And there is nothing wrong, or inadequate, or shameful, or weak about being one of the unfortunately many women who are able to claim the title.

  1. I started this post before my friend died, which is why it’s a little outdated.
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{ 31 comments }

1 Judith December 13, 2008 at 9:54 am

It’s an interesting question. I’ve actually just finished a feminist critique of the UN trafficking protocol and the surrounding discourse/interpretation/state practice that takes on the piegonholing of women into victim and criminal categories. In it, I object to “victim” not necessarily as a term for those who actually were victims of horrible crimes, abuse, violence, rape, etc. – though I can see why women might prefer to use other terms. My problem with it is that in the trafficking context, “victim” is a term that women don’t always get a choice in applying to themselves or not. Women are described as victims if they are morally “pure” and then end up in a “bad situation,” even if that situation is simply sex work, for which they voluntarily migrated. Trafficking and voluntary sex work are conflated in a lot of countries, and there is this idea that if you were “innocent” and then chose sex work, it wasn’t an action as an independent agent, but rather you were forced – if not in actuality, by your desperate situation. There’s a racist bent there as well, as it’s usually developed-world feminists talking about developing-world women. Victim, as you can imagine, is a term not frequently applied to men in the discourse. But as for what you’re talking about, I think it’s really up to the individual. You can say that you are a victim of a situation over which you had no control without your whole *personality* being encompassed by that victimization.

Also – I keep meaning to say this, but you have been in my thoughts and prayers and I am so sorry for your loss. Though we don’t know each other, the bloggers I read regularly become like friends to me, and I have been thinking about you.

2 Lea December 13, 2008 at 9:58 am

Thank you, for putting so eloquently something that I have been struggling to make people understand. I use the word “victim” when I refer to my own experiences or when I talk in general about violence, and it makes people angry. There seems to be a time limit on how long people are comfortable with someone being a victim. It might just only be for a day, or a week, maybe even a few months, but it is never on the victimized woman’s terms. But I think that because so many women are not believed about their experiences with violence, that ‘victim’ becomes a powerful word of acknowledgment. It grants permission to be vulnerable, fragile, to feel ‘degraded’ if she needs to, to take time, to break under pressure if that is all she is able to do. Disparaging the identity of ‘victim’ silences us, it says “get over it and shut up”. People don’t want to hear the rawness, the complexity of violence, they want it in tidy packages that don’t challenge them, or demand any recognition or support.

3 Cara December 13, 2008 at 9:59 am

Judith — I absolutely agree that situations where we decide a woman is a victim of a circumstance when she feels otherwise are incredibly patronizing, and it’s a common one that really bothers me. (Renegade Evolution often talks about her offense to the common trope “all sex workers have been raped,” as being both offensive to her as someone who is a sex worker and has never been raped, and to actual rape victims.) Obviously that’s not a situation I was referring to here, but it does bring an extra, interesting dimension to the discussion.

And thank you.

4 Renee December 13, 2008 at 10:53 am

To be honest this is a difficult post for me. I float back and forth between victim and survivor but find I can only really claim the survivor persona when I am most enraged. For me saying victim means that something happened which was beyond my control; and therefore have zero responsibility for. I know that “victim” can have ugly connotations, but I feel it is important to hold on to because it makes the abuser accountable for her/his actions. I am not demeaned rather the ugliness of what happened to be is front and center.

5 Cara December 13, 2008 at 11:00 am

Agreed, Renee. But I actually think that I’m the opposite, in that I use victim when I’m most enraged.

6 Emily December 13, 2008 at 12:02 pm

I agree with what you are saying about the word victim but I wonder if the roles that Kristin is being offered are as nuanced and self-defining or whether they are simply designed to make viewers feel pity and superiority for the character without giving her any agency.

7 Tokidoki December 13, 2008 at 12:56 pm

I prefer to describe myself as a victim of rape rather than a survivor. I think allowing myself to acknowledge I was a victim of abuse, and am still a victim of sexism/the patriarchy allows me to feel justified when I get angry. I survived, yeah-but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t victimized and that I wasn’t helpless. And I’m ANGRY about that.

People always told me to stop “acting” like a victim (crying, leaving my rapist) the moment I showed any negative emotions about my ex raping me. It allowed them to minimize the damage (see, she lived, so it wasn’t THAT bad) and makes it seem as though there IS no victim. You’re completely right-victim should not be a dirty word at all. Using “survivor” follows the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and I hate when people say that. Not so much anymore, but for women who are in the middle of their recovery.

I felt horrible when people would tell me it would make me “stronger” in the end when I’d have flashbacks and nightmares everyday. I don’t need to make it out to be a “lesson learned” when I was victimized. I didn’t need to be raped to be stronger, that’s for damn sure. People use it to minimize the trauma of sexual violence and deny the feelings of helplessness it causes.

(Of course, if someone is more comfortable/empowered by the use of the word ‘survivor’ that’s up to them. The victim sets the terms of their recovery and perspective, no one else!)

8 ilyka December 13, 2008 at 1:44 pm

I love this, I love this, I love this. I think the preference for “survivor” is one of those things that started out with mostly good intentions but is increasingly feeling like the pink ribbon campaign for me. You know, breast cancer isn’t something that kills women; it’s something women survive! Except when they don’t.

People always told me to stop “acting” like a victim (crying, leaving my rapist) the moment I showed any negative emotions about my ex raping me. It allowed them to minimize the damage (see, she lived, so it wasn’t THAT bad) and makes it seem as though there IS no victim.

Agree, Tokidoki. It sometimes feels like the only “true” victims to people like that are dead ones. I hate that. Of course, that ties back in a little to what Judith said, because there does also seem to be a tendency to use “victim” in an object-not-subject sense, and the dead make great objects.

9 Isabel December 13, 2008 at 4:03 pm

I really like this post, and I agree with a lot of what you’ve said in it–it’s horrible that anyone should ever be made to feel like they need to assume responsibility or feel shame for something someone else did to them. It’s a tricky balance–I feel like the focus on survivor over victim came about as a sort of reactive thing, because there was (is) this idea that somehow rape “degrades” the victim or taints her or breaks her, and the idea of survivor was responding to that saying, look, someone’s life does not necessarily end after they have been raped or abused in some other way. This is the way I usually approach it, but I think everyone who’s commented is right that it can be this sort of “policing” thing–I like Ilyka’s comparison to the pink ribbon campaign a lot.

However, I do have one question, about this:

And it doesn’t mean that we should be seen as people lacking strength, as Kristin Bell explicitly frames us.

I’m not sure how you are reading her comments, which makes me wonder if there’s maybe something in your post I’m misreading, because (correct me if I’m wrong) it seems your post is largely about victims in the context of rape/abuse/etc., whereas I think Bell is using the word in a very different context, responding to a very different set of expectations, that doesn’t have to do with whether the character has experienced rape or sexual assault. But, maybe I’m wrong; I guess I’m just asking you to clarify in what context you’re using victim because I’m not sure I know exactly how to read your post (sorry if this is just me being really sleepdeprived and suffering from poor reading comprehension).

10 Cara December 13, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Yes, I was using the word victim in the sense of gendered violence, i.e. sexual and domestic violence, the kind that women are usually portrayed as being victims of (and regularly are victims of). I don’t know what other context Kristen Bell might have been using the word in. How do you think she was using it?

11 James December 13, 2008 at 5:31 pm

Well, Bell says that by “victim,” she means a woman who is merely a “supporting character” or a “boring character.”

I agree with Isabel–it *sounds* to me like Bell isn’t talking about victim in the sense of a survivor of sexual assault or domestic violence.

12 Cara December 13, 2008 at 5:45 pm

I understood the statement of not wanting to play a victim as being separate from the later one about not wanting to play a character who doesn’t do anything.

However, even if they weren’t separate statements, I think there’s something hugely problematic — and stigmatizing — about using the word victim to describe the kind of character/woman she goes on to talk about.

13 Julian December 13, 2008 at 7:16 pm

My heart goes out to you, Renee, both for the loss of your friend, and for being misogynistically harmed as you were. And to all the other victims and survivors of rape here, my heart goes out to you as well.

I too am a survivor of abuse, “mine” happened when I was under the age of thirteen. (I am often conflicted about referring to “my abusers” as such. Do I really want to claim them as belonging to me?!)

I think “The United Rapes of Amerikkka” is uncomfortable with women naming themselves as victims because, guess what?: that means there was a “victimizer”. If all who are oppressed and/or not-so-individually harmed by sexual abuse and violence only call ourselves “survivors”, doesn’t that invisibilise the perpetrators, the oppressors? Who or what exactly is “the harmer” if someone is “a survivor”?

I think it’s part and parcel of the white male supremacist media’s systematic invisibilising of oppression and perpetration as both vicious and victimising that the political act of rape is being conveniently smuggled away from the realm of Womanist and feminist analysis of the atrocity as a form of terrorism of women as a class. When talk shows have rape survivors on, why aren’t they allowed to express rage, not just tears and fear? The tears, the fear, and the rage–all of it? Why aren’t there any feminist “survivors” (experts) of rape, putting each woman’s experience into a political context–as a way to empower each woman by speaking truth to power? Why is it appropriate to frame up such atrocity as a matter of the survivor-as-individual who “ought to be sure to get good therapy”. Why ought she not learn how to fire a gun, so the next prick that comes along finds himself dead, not just deadened by his own inhumanity?

Sexual assault, as I understand and experienced it, was and is part of a larger system of subordination of women, girls, and feminised boys. It’s very politically strategic–and patriarchally correct–of perpetrators and oppressors to make it seem as if rape should be dealt with primarily or only in small sheltered groups, or with that apolitical psychotherapist, where we can talk about something traumatic that happened, anecdotally, again and again and again (but never systematically!?).

Never mind that “Take Back The Night” where I live has been almost totally co-opted by the language of white academic liberal psychology, not street feminism; and has had to be inclusive of male survivors, because Lorde knows, women can’t have their own spaces any more to speak out about crimes against women.

Who is served, and not held accountable, if we “survivors” all just ought to work (privately, quietly) on ourselves to get over it? Since when was activism and speaking out not a form of healing? Why aren’t women allowed to name political harm as such when on a talk show? How nice for the rapists, incest perpetrators, corporate pimps and pornographers, traffickers and abusive johns and child molesters if we just “move on” and put “that” behind us.

Why aren’t victims allowed to acknowledge that for many of us, living through sexual assault isn’t something one recovers from? Why are we being prodded by government and media to be only engaged in privatised processes of “healing ourselves” rather than going after the perpetrators and the systems of harm which support them? I’m sure perps love it that we are shamed out of calling ourselves victims, that we have all, let’s pretend, survived! We have not all survived, and the dead need spokespeople.

Speaking only for myself, parts of me survived, and parts of me have not. I was changed by being assaulted. It wasn’t an incident I can “get over”. The term “survivor” doesn’t address that complexity of experience, even while I use the term to appear “empowered”.

When discussing the subject in relatively safe environments, I will say that “I was sexually assaulted by a heterosexual married man who was also the neighborhood child molester.” And I name him, even though he’s since died. I think it is important to name what was done, which includes identifying the perpetrator–as at least being someone who existed.

We live in an era where finding and claiming empowerment inside systems that have little to no regard for women’s human rights or well-being is “in”, while calling out corporate pimps and other perps, as self-serving, very empowered oppressors of women, is “out”. Whose interests are served by this trend?

Let’s see: perps cease to exist in how we name our experience, and the fact that men pay women more to be sexually available than to do anything else isn’t questioned anymore, because, well, that makes women look like, gasp, victims of economic and sexual exploitation. Every woman I know, inside or outside systems of sexual exploitation, is a victim of economic and sexual exploitation. Does anyone know anyone who isn’t? And if it happens to “all of us”, and we make our way through it, somehow (or opt out of life instead), does what is going down cease to have political meaning?

Curious that the term “victim” is more stigmatised than the terms “pornographer”, “pimp”, procurer, and date-rapist. Curious that the only groups who now embrace the term “victim” are Men’s Rights Activists, White Nationalists, and other racists and people with privilege. Curious that talk of genuine liberation from white male supremacy has been generally replaced with talk of relative empowerment inside systems of economic and sexual exploitation.

That’s not the vision or goal I held to from reading and rereading Audre Lorde’s, Andrea Dworkin’s, Pearl Cleage’s, and Andrea Smith’s written work. They had or have a standard of human dignity, of freedom for women, that didn’t include systems of gross exploitation and atrocity–genocical and gynocidal. Yes, we are all here now, and we all must find our way. And I fully support any individuals defining for themselves what they experience. And while this sort of necessary individualised self-naming goes on, without other voices telling it like it is–for far too many women and girls–white male supremacists thank us, audibly or not, from the bottom of their harsh cold hearts.

14 Julian December 13, 2008 at 7:20 pm

I sincerely apologise, Cara, for indentifying you as Renee. I’ve been to a few blogs today, but that’s no excuse! And, btw, THANK YOU, for this post!

(I’m so friggin’ gay I can’t even keep the blogs straight!)

15 Cara December 13, 2008 at 7:31 pm

No problem, Julian — if I’m going to be confused with someone, I’m honored to be confused with Renee :)

16 Puppycat December 13, 2008 at 11:17 pm

You should post this on feministe too.

17 Isabel December 14, 2008 at 12:59 am

Cara: okay, thanks for clarifying. I assumed Bell wasn’t saying she wouldn’t play a victim in the sense of someone who had raped or abused because her breakthrough role on Veronica Mars was a character who had been raped, it was a pretty major storyline in the first season (and she’s said before that she really loves the character of Veronica). I guess I forget that not everyone was as obsessed with Veronica Mars as I was :)

So I didn’t read her statement as saying she didn’t want to play someone who hadn’t been victimized in her life (since she has, and enjoyed it), but rather, she wanted to stay away from scripts (all too common) where the female character is basically a passive object to whom things in general happen, and the female character is defined solely by the things that happen to her rather than by her own personality and agency.

I would take issue with her choice to use the word “victim” and leave it at that, because I do think by doing so she’s buying into the same old cultural narratives about the shame of victimhood–i.e., she can say “I don’t want to play a victim” and assume it will read in people’s minds as victimhood as a state of the character rather than as a description of events (if that makes sense) because that’s what victim has come to mean, which as you so eloquently pointed out (as I can appreciate better now that I understand where you were jumping off the article from) is wrong on multiple levels. But, I definitely don’t think Bell thinks that women who have been raped or abused are lacking strength–but I should have thought about the fact that most people are not as familiar with a TV show hardly anyone watched as I am. oops. (and of course, I do think that anyone that does think that is grossly wrong on several levels, especially including people who think any amount of time is “too long” to get over something).

Anyway, this post is obviously about much bigger things than some star’s comments, so apologies for the minor derail, and thanks again for clarifying.

18 hexy December 14, 2008 at 1:27 am

I find that an odd comment for an actor to make. There are some amazing roles from all subsections of film and theatre history who could be classed as “victims”. If she means that she only wants to play self-determined, tough women who are never violated, damaged or hurt by other characters and who ultimately come out on top, then I fear she’s in for a very boring career full of repetitive and near-identical roles.

As for me, I seem to be a bit odd in that I don’t see “survivor” and “victim” as mutually exclusive labels. Both describe me and what I went through. I am and was a rape victim. I am also and was also a rape survivor. They might have different connotations, but the experience they describe is, to me, the same.

19 Jzexoia December 14, 2008 at 2:04 am

Well, I had one thought about the word ‘victim’:

The word victim, as a descriptor, does not have to be all-encompassing. For example, I can say that I am a student – meaning that I attend a university – but that doesn’t mean that I will approach everything in life as though I am ignorant, or only see things through the eyes of an academic. I don’t have to ‘play the part’ of a student 24/7 – and that doesn’t mean I ever actually stop being one.

I see being a victim in the same way – things happened in the past, unpleasant things of which I was the victim. Sometimes, the memories still haunt me, and then I still feel like a victim today. I suffer from PTSD, and in that sense, I am still a victim. But just like being a student, that doesn’t mean that I have to be a victim 24/7, that it encompasses my life or prevents me from seeing the world from a non-victim perspective. I can be a victim and a student and a feminist simultaneously, without any of those things overriding the fact that I am a human being.

Actually, I haven’t studied this but I would strongly suspect that this might be the reason for the switch to the word ‘survivor.’ Victim may not have had the same connotations originally, but the word transitioned from describing an event or series of events and an aspect of a person’s experience as a victim – to being used as a description of who and what you are, fully and without room for other descriptors. This might have been why people started using “survivor” instead, since it carried less of this. Of course by this point, I think the same thing has happened to “survivor.”

If somebody knows more about the history of those words than I do, please feel free to correct me!

Overall, though, I thought this post made a very good point about how the word ‘survivor’ makes the perpetrators invisible. People survive hurricanes and landslides and wars – but we don’t really punish anyone for those things (except sometimes wars), those are just ‘things that happen’ and we all try to ‘move on’ from the ‘tragedy.’ It’s not the same if someone is assaulted or murdered – then we wan to go after the perpetrator and punish them and let society know that this is wrong. Rape isn’t just ‘something that happens’ – I had never really thought about those words in that way before, it was interesting – thank you.

20 Sara B December 14, 2008 at 6:05 pm

I read this post with great interest. I agree that when the word “survivor” ceases to be a point of power within ourselves and instead turns into something we are expected to say and embody it ceases to empower us and becomes yet another way to be scrutinized and pigeonholed by the public. As others have commented- why do we have to be one or the other; and why the hell DON’T we have the right to break down, be angry, carry a grudge at least once in a while? What was done to us was unconscionable. Should we really concede that our souls have been forged in some character building experience rather than indict sexual violence as the truly heinous thing it is?

When I was assaulted at a hospital and the staff chose, rather than move my attacker to a higher security ward, to keep him on the ward and try to relocate ME, I was shocked, devastated, and utterly confused as to why it was a FEMALE administrator who fought and ultimately succeeded to keep a known sex offender in general population, until I realized how much it must have built her sorry ass up to be surrounded by “stupid” and “weak” women who “put themselves in a position” to get assaulted and raped, so that she could prove to herself day by day that she was above it all; that she had made all the right choices in life and established a position of power for herself that made her immune… so that it could “never happen to her.”

There’s a wide population of women out there who harbor contempt for victims of sexual violence who need to keep themselves as far separated from the victims as possible, and cling to the idea that every woman brought it on herself in some way. To these people, women especially, does using the word “survivor” give us permission to sit at the same table? Does it establish that we have changed; that we were once “that kind of woman” who could “get herself raped,” but we’re not anymore?

Sara

21 ZoBabe December 14, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Sara that is an extremely good point. Though never consciously, I think I may have done that myself to some degree. I almost never use “victim” or “survivor” in relation to my own experience with rape, I simply say “I was raped.” (Though this also wasn’t conscious, I think I just kind of picked up on how loaded “victim” had become)

However, although I know that no woman is ever safe, most rapes occur when women are in their teens or early adulthood. For those of use who were quite young when it happened, it can be comforting to think that our own naivety was to blame, and identify exactly as having one been “that kind of woman” who could get herself raped, “but not anymore.”

22 Ashley December 14, 2008 at 8:42 pm

It’s decidedly un-PC in the rape crisis center world to call survivors “victims,” but I’ve heard victims/survivors express a preference for both terms. A friend of mine gets really pissed when people call her a survivor. She says she isn’t just surviving, thank you very much. I’ve also heard people say that the word “survivor” makes them feel very empowered.

Personally, I think it’s best to just use them interchangeably and let each victim/survivor sort out how they want to be identified. That’s generally how SAFER handles it.

23 akeeyu December 14, 2008 at 11:54 pm

I always say “I was raped” rather than identify myself as a rape victim, because I’d rather have it be something that happened to me than something that changed me into something else entirely. I’d like to keep it as far from myself as possible.

Of course, being raped DID change me into something else, but these are the unconscious linguistic games one plays with oneself.

24 Dee December 16, 2008 at 9:23 am

The problem with both words is their over use. “He/She was a victim of circumstance.” Often can translate into, “They were driving drunk and got themselves killed”.

The meanings of either of the words are somewhat euphemistic – they are what we say when we want to pretend that the world hasn’t touched us, or that we are not at fault for what has happened.

I am not saying there aren’t valid uses of the words, but the saturation and flippancy of their uses cheapen their meaning.

25 Mheald December 16, 2008 at 3:43 pm

I wonder if what Kristen was trying to express was her desire to stay away from roles where women are written *only* as victims, and that is the only character development they have.

26 PO A. December 16, 2008 at 4:41 pm

I WAS a victim of rape 13 years ago, but I AM a survivor. “Victim” is tied to an act, a discrete period of time. “Survivor” is my response to that, an ongoing process. I have no problems using both words, because they describe two very different things.

27 umami December 21, 2008 at 7:52 pm

I know the point of this post is not really about Kristin Bell, but I just wanted to add that her breakout role was as the titular character in Veronica Mars, who is beyond any doubt a “strong female character”, verging on ridiculously so except the writing is good enough to carry it off. The first season of that show is FANTASTIC, and one of its central season-long mysteries (which Veronica is trying to solve herself) is “who raped Veronica?” So I think Bell is probably expressing her desire not to play the victim in the sense of being a Woman in Refrigerator plot device for the male hero to rescue/angst over; she certainly can’t have a problem playing the victim of a crime.

28 SnowdropExplodes December 25, 2008 at 8:25 am

I think that “victim” becomes a problem when it becomes not merely a description of what happened, but an identification of one’s life-role: that is, I think “don’t be a victim” refers more properly (although perhaps not in most people’s thinking) to the idea of playing a part: in my life, I have played this part sometimes, of casting myself as “victim” in a broader sense, as someone who always ends up the target of someone else, “for no good reason”. This is a long way from what happens to us when we are genuinely a victim of someone else’s aggression. When it actually happens, we genuinely are weak, we are frightened, and unless we are lucky, we are also helpless. But once it has happened and is over, there is a choice to struggle against that, or to embrace it. I think “victim” therefore has a positive usage and a negative usage: positive says, “yes, this happened to me and I deal with it” (which is why I understand some people prefer the term “survivor” to refer to this), and negative, which is “I will always be this way for ever more”. I hasten to add that I cast no condemnation on those for whom the second meaning feels real; they are still victims in the first sense, after all, and nothing justifies what happened to them. It is just that I do believe it is a psychological reaction that is ultimately harmful to the person experiencing it.

29 Irene February 16, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Your post raises exactly a question I have been dealing with for over half a year now. I got out of an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship last summer. It’s been difficult getting my life back on track because of flashbacks and insomnia. etc.

An immense part of my sadness afterwards was the realization that somehow I had been there all along; that I had enabled his abusing me; that there is something in me that must make people (men) insecure or angry with me and my ways… That I could have left earlier, or spoken up for myself more, or done something! That, in a weird way, I was the one making it all happen, either because I was provoking him or because I didn’t speak up when things were happening.

I still have to be reminded now and then that I was, in fact, a victim. I have difficulties using that label – it does indeed carry the associations of weakness. But you know what? I was weak in that relationship – not because I am inherently so, but because he undermined my every move and thought. Weak is a relative term, and there are very few people who are not ‘weakened’ when confronted with emotional, physical, sexual abuse.

So claiming that word, victim, did help me; it helped me stop blame myself.

30 nails February 16, 2009 at 1:40 pm

I had not thought about this. Whenever I described myself I always said “I was raped”, I didnt see a need for a word like victim or survivor. Im not sure its neccesary at all. “Women who have been sexually abused” etc works just fine for me. I do think its silly that being a victim of something is being treated like a dirty word.

31 DaisyDeadhead February 16, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Cara, awesome writing. Sorry I am so late getting here, as usual.

I didn’t grow up with the whole taboo on “victim”–so it is VERY confusing to me. When I tried to write on FEMINIST CRITICS (yes, I know, glutton for punishment) about my intense feelings over not being allowed to play drums, (a very charged-issue in my life and a post I am still struggling to write), I was inundated with nasty remarks about how I was “playing the victim” and I could have played the drums any time I wanted after I left my family home (the people who refused me the right to play–to clarify: my family was a musical family and there were drum kits right there in my house; I was not allowed to go near them, rather like men’s carpentry tools)… this seems to overlook how oppression works, and how pervasive it is. Because of this unpleasant thread, I –1) left FEMINIST CRITICS, never to return and 2) never posted the part of my childhood recollection I finally DID finish. I worried I was “playing victim”–especially since I really don’t know what the hell that means. I mean, facts are facts, and I was not permitted to play drums because when I was growing up, because that’s the way it was. (And as I reminded the guys who held her up to me as an example: KAREN CARPENTER HAD HER DRUMS TAKEN AWAY FROM HER AND EVENTUALLY FUCKING DIED, OKAY? Please stop the mindless “What about Karen Carpenter?” yammering.)

How else to talk about such realities? YES, I was a VICTIM of SEXISM and NOT ALLOWED to play the drums, which I think would have radically changed my personality, allowing me to release a lot of physical aggression, permitting me to develop strength, not to mention doing what I really loved. Why can we say this about generations of would-be female athletes, denied the right to join teams, but no other activities? Wait, maybe we AREN’T allowed to say that any more… OMG, maybe they are “playing the victim” TOO!!!!

This is all a way to SILENCE people, IMHO. The neocons decided “victim” was a whiny excuse, and now, even the liberals tote their water for them. It’s disgusting.

Thanks for your awesomeness, yet again!

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