Carrying On: “Victim” label not an identity

January 16, 2014

We’ve heard nearly every side of the debate about how to properly treat sexual assault perpetrators and victims, but one. Victim-blaming, slut-shaming, we’ve heard it all.

But we shouldn’t press the “victim” label onto those who have been sexually assaulted. Haven’t they experienced enough without having to be redefined by the horrific experience? This label is just another reason why those who have been sexually assaulted may choose not to be open in the first place. It’s either be truthful and forever have a societally imposed label when your name comes up, or tell no one. Such a position is like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Neither is acceptable.

When I was a freshman in high school I was wedged on the floor between the back seat of the bus and the one directly in front of it by two friends who assaulted me and thought I was having a good time. And, while my story is by no means the most horrific or the worst that could have happened, I told no one. I felt that it was bad enough to mentally be, for the rest of my life, the 16-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted on the back of the bus without everyone else–my school, my town, my family–thinking it too. Though I have some selfish measure of pride for going through it all on my own, coming to terms with it, and owning it, and being able to stand in front of practically anyone today as someone who wasn’t defined by this event, it shouldn’t have had to be that way in the first place.

In my position, to be open was to lose my identity and radically stunt whatever potential I had to represent something to other people.

Perhaps the most fundamentally important and obvious thing sexual assault survivors deserve is the right to be open about their experiences. They need to be able to talk, to let the perpetrators be turned over to the law. They shouldn’t have to fear being open with family, the law, or health practitioners because of the shame they may encounter. But what people don’t seem to understand is that a survivor’s shame doesn’t just come from the assholes who persist in blaming the victim or excusing the perpetrator.

The sexual assault debate is seemingly made of two sides: those who work to support the survivor, and those who seek to blame and outcast them. But, the “good side” isn’t seeing how it shames the survivor too. This mistreatment lies in the pitying glances, unsought puppy-dog eyes, and victim label often oh-so-caringly served up to survivors in the name of being a good supporter of women’s rights. It’s not that these people shouldn’t care or be human, or that survivors’ experiences aren’t that serious, but that when you see survivors as tragic sexual assault victims, instead of as Jane Hoya or Ana Smith, you inflict perhaps the worst consequence of being sexually assaulted—the permanent loss of identity.

Even the most seemingly understanding supporters don’t typically see that endless pity labeling someone “victim,” to redefine their identity and place a footnote next to their name forever in your contacts list, is almost as bad as anything the victim-blamers and slut-shamers can throw at them.

This issue of loss of identity, besides the obvious gender imbalance, is perhaps also the reason why many men feel like they can’t speak out about being sexually assaulted. To be assaulted is to seem weak. To be pitied takes away your ability to see yourself as strong.

I am not weak. We are not weak and defenseless.

I should have felt I could do what was right and speak out without feeling like I would no longer be me. I still don’t talk about my sexual assault, only because it is obsolete to me now; it is unrelated to who I am. I wanted to be who I wanted to be—the master of my own identity.

So don’t pity us. Understand us, stand beside us, not because we are victims, but because we are people too. We can handle it.

Ana Smith
Ana Smith is a member of the College class of 2015. She majored in Biology of Global Health, premed, and minored in French.


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