Survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other traumas are rightly proud of overcoming the horrendous mistreatment they have suffered. At the same time, victims of abuse want understanding and support for the enormous harm they have suffered. Survivors are also victims and victims are often survivors. Nevertheless, individuals often have strong views of the term they want to be used to describe their experience.
There are not many safe places to have this discussion. Recently, I participated in a discussion as part of my training as an instructor in a NY Model Batterer Program. We also enjoyed this discussion during a NOMAS Council Meeting. I am indeed lucky to have so many thoughtful and caring colleagues. The discussions were enlightening and I want to share the ideas in this article.
The easy part is that we want to respect and honor people who went through these horrific ordeals. If someone prefers to be called a survivor or a victim their preference should certainly be honored. The more difficult issue is what language to use in articles and books when addressing a variety of people who may have different preferences or their preferences are unknown to the author.
Survivors and Victims
Domestic violence and sexual assault cause life-changing consequences. Some victims do not survive the initial attack and others find themselves unable to live with the devastation these cruel crimes cause. It takes tremendous work, suffering and courage to overcome the harm caused by the abusers. Those who manage to move past his abuse are rightly proud of their achievement. They often want to be viewed as survivors rather than victims because they want to be seen for their strength in overcoming the attack and not as a victim unable to protect themselves. This is particularly true because our society tends to minimize the harm from gendered assaults and expect the victims to just “get over it.”
Some see the term survivor as minimizing the continuing difficulties and the harm caused by the abuser.
At the same time, continuing to live does not mean that the harm goes away or that victims do not continue to suffer. Some see the term survivor as minimizing the continuing difficulties and the harm caused by the abuser. Victims want society to understand the full extent of the harm so that preventing future attacks and requiring the abuser to face meaningful accountability are important concerns. Many victims become activists seeking needed reforms for exactly this reason.
I have not seen much discussion of this issue. The difficult part is that pride in overcoming the horrific abuse; anger at the abuser for causing such harm and desire for society to create more of a priority to prevent this abuse is a necessary part of healing. Especially harmful is when society itself causes or encourages this harm such as when custody courts deny or minimize domestic violence and child abuse and then demand children be sent for further abuse. The courage of a survivor and pain of a victim are usually present in the same person as a result of the same attack.
I want to be viewed as a victim
When the broken custody court system retaliated against me for exposing an abusive judge, Connie Valentine, a leader in the protective mothers movement, told me, “Today you are a woman because you received women’s justice.” Clearly the attack on me was far less impactful than most women face. I have survived, switched careers and continue to work to reform a broken system that harms so many mothers and children. Nevertheless, I want to be viewed as a victim because I don’t want the courts’ failures and unethical behavior to be hidden. The reforms will only come if we focus on their wrongdoing.
Child Victims Act
The work I am doing on behalf of children and protective mothers would not be possible without the hard work of my Stop Abuse Campaign colleagues, Melanie Blow and Andrew Willis. Melanie and Andrew are both survivors and victims of child sexual abuse. They have overcome the trauma to make tremendous contributions to the work to prevent child abuse. At the same time, although they are decades removed from the sexual assaults, they suffer the pain and trauma every day of their lives.
One of our major campaigns has been the Child Victims Act in New York. The law was recently passed after 13 years of hard work. The law will extend the time for child sexual abuse victims to sue those responsible and provides a window for lawsuits that would otherwise be barred by the Statute of Limitations. The extension of time is important because most victims are unable to recover sufficiently to bring legal action until it is too late. This is especially important because rapists know they are unlikely to face consequences and this contributes to more children being raped and assaulted.
While I believe the law would permit an estate of a child victim to sue, it is unlikely this could be successful without the testimony of the victim. Accordingly, although the beneficiaries of the law have physically survived, they are referenced as victims because of the enormous harm they suffered and continue to suffer. The pain and harm suffered by survivors does not go away even as survivors seek to move forward with their lives.
There is no answer about the language for survivors and victims that is always right. Those who want to emphasize their achievement in surviving after unspeakable trauma should be called survivors. Those who want to emphasize the harm they continue to suffer should be called victims. My NOMAS Council colleague, David Greene suggested combining the two such as survivor still impacted by abuse.
Survivors and victims should be honored and respected for the tremendous effort, courage and sacrifice it took to overcome their trauma. We should recognize that even if they seem to be doing well on the outside, the pain, fear and stress will continue as long as they survive. Especially important, society must strive to avoid any responses that add to the harm already suffered.
Society must strive to avoid any responses that add to the harm already suffered.
What we should never do is: blame the victim; create a false equivalency between abuser and victim; minimize the harm the abuser caused; force the victim to interact with the abuser; disbelieve the survivor; fail to provide the support and encouragement survivors need; allow the offenders to avoid accountability; or fail to create necessary reforms to prevent others from becoming victims.
It is outrageous that: one quarter of our children like my friends Melanie and Andrew will be sexually abused by the time they reach 18; only six out of 100 rapes will result in jail for the rapist; rape and domestic violence are the most underreported crimes; in 2019 many people responding to rape still ask what was she wearing; 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers every year; in the last ten years over 650 children involved in contested custody cases have been murdered, mostly by abusive fathers; and the courts have not adopted reforms in response to these preventable tragedies.
I am a strong believer in the importance of language, but more than language what we owe to survivors and victims is a sincere commitment to make it stop!
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Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.