Why telling victims not to ‘be victims’ is wrong

Kate Smurthwaite stands in defence of this battered word.

As the Bill Cosby trial finishes and the world watches to see which other big names will face court there seems to be confusion about how we talk about the people on the other side of the courtroom. Victims? Or survivors? As a proud feminist most people seem to think I will argue for ‘survivor’ – a word intended to honour strength and resilience. And I’m a big fan of strength and resilience. But I’d like to say something in defence of the other word. Victim.

Lets start with the definition. ‘A person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.’ If that description fits you, as it does me, and frankly most of us, then I think we should feel free to use it. There should be no shame in it.

Ultimately no-one chooses to be a victim. I’m often told that as a woman in the public eye I should expect abuse and put up with it. But what I have chosen is to express my views. Not to be abused for them. If I can only choose both or neither then effectively people are saying ‘as a woman, don’t speak in public’ and that’s a sentence that has no place in the 21st century unless it’s followed by ‘blessed be the fruit’.

Survivors, by definition, are those who go through these awful experiences but don’t die. My solidarity for victims extends to those who’ve died. In the war on women that #metoo is pushing back against we should not pretend that there is not a death toll. There is. Those directly killed by Toronto van attacker Alex Minassian, and by misogynist killer Elliott Rodger in a spree in 2014. The never-less-than-horrifying numbers of domestic violence casualties. Those so traumatized by their experiences at the hands of rapists and abusers that they have tragically killed themselves. In fact they’re my number one reason for wanting to fight back harder every time.

There’s no shame in being hurt by what we’ve experienced. The shame is in hurting us. Telling victims not to ‘be victims’ and show or admit their hurt further traumatizes victims. They have nothing to be ashamed of.

As to the notion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That’s a fair point when it comes to circuit training at the gym, but not actually true of abuse and harassment. I’ve never seen anyone respond to a punch in the face by saying ‘brilliant, my jaw really needed strengthening’.

I understand: we want the person who has been wronged to somehow come out the victor. It appeals to our sense of not having to take action ourselves, ‘cause somehow magical space-karma will solve the situation fairly for us.’ Sorry: life isn’t like that.

I’ve survived a great deal in my life and people always draw the conclusion that that’s what makes me tough in TV debates with alt-right douchebros and in comedy clubs with drunk Christmas parties. I am inclined to disagree. You can argue that I’m tough and resilient because of the child abuse, rape, harassment and abuse I’ve been through in my forty-two years on earth. I am telling you without those things I’d be prime minister by now. Fact.

The irony is heavy. Internet abusers routinely accuse me of ‘playing the victim’, often in the same comments and messages where they are threatening me, abusing me and essentially making me a victim of harassment and abuse.

While I’m on the subject there is no such thing as a ‘victim mentality’. There are a bunch of things collectively known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I seem so far to have got away quite lightly although I do suffer hyper-vigilance episodes occasionally. Apologies to well-meaning people who have passed me my dropped phone in train stations and been met with full ninja lock-down response. Yeah, sucks eh, but if you’d had as many death threats as me, there’d be a part of your brain constantly wondering if your next moment was your last too.

Those that make others victims are the problem. Not the victims. Forget ‘victim mentality’, show me the assholes with ‘perpetrator mentality’ because they are the problem here. Not me.

There is a distinctly sexist tone to this whole situation. When a man gets mugged, no-one calls him a mugging ‘survivor’. He’s just a victim of a mugging. In fact I’m pretty sure a man could say ‘I’m a victim of sexism’ and no-one would say ‘why are you clinging to that victim mentality?’ Women don’t have that privilege.

In order to solve problems we need to be able to describe them. We need simple factual language that describes a situation and those involved in it without minimizing their experiences or making them sound like they’ve made it through Broken Skull Ranch or some jungle-based celebrity reality show.

‘Victim’ is a word that describes an individual who has been wronged. It doesn’t describe their response. I stand with all victims. The ones that fought back, the ones that died, the ones that put the experience behind them and got on with other things, the ones that put on a tough front, the ones that wonder why they don’t cry any more, even the ones that prefer to call themselves ‘survivors’ and the ones, like me, who occasionally scream at well-meaning people in train stations and then feel terrible about it.

There isn’t a right way to respond to being a victim. All there is a right way to stop being a perpetrator. Maybe that’s the word people should be ashamed of.


Header image: #MeToo women's march, Philadelphia, US, 2018. Photo: Rob Kall (CC 2.0)