Having a hard time figuring out when it's appropriate to state victim vs. survivor? You're not the only one...
Consider this question.
"I slipped up and said the 'victim' word to my girlfriend the other day when she was talking about her assault. What's the difference between survivor and victim?"
The honest answer... it depends. But just for definition's sake, let's take a look.
Per Merriam-Webster, victim is defined as:
One that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent such; one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions; or one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment.
And survivor is defined as:
One remaining alive or in existence; one who lives on; one continuing to function or prosper despite; or one who withstands.
The survivor definition focuses on life following trauma, empowering individuals who’ve been through violence to recognize their existence all while persevering in their healing process or other positive aspects in their lives. The trauma doesn’t define them, it’s something they’ve experienced and can move past.
The victim definition can sometimes make an individual feel stuck in the past or focus on the trauma, affecting them in harmful way, on a frequent basis. But that’s just one interpretation and why some may take offense. However, there are individuals who’ve experienced trauma who may prefer this term. They may feel it describes their circumstance as is and may not feel ready to be addressed as a survivor just yet.
With that said, individuals who have been through trauma may be able to relate to or feel comfortable with either term.
I have a tendency to use survivor when I refer to individuals who have experienced trauma. However, as a medical professional, I will also use the word victim in certain circumstances. For instance, if I’m speaking with a group about violence where they are new to certain topics, I may initially use the word victim because we can all identify with the meaning of the term. I will then explain the difference, and then switch to using survivor.
So how will you know which term to use? Here are 4 suggestions:
4 Ways to Support Survivors in Conversations Concerning Words that May Trigger
1. Apologize - If you find that your words have been harmful or offensive, feel free to apologize (if you mean it) for not knowing how to address the situation. Then...
2. Ask - Don’t be afraid to ask a survivor what’s appropriate for the conversation at hand. Sometimes, however, no matter how much care you put in your words, this can still be a very sensitive topic. And some may feel uncomfortable in discussion no matter your response. But, in any event, if something is unclear or you’re unsure if your response is appropriate, asking for clarification can be appreciated.
3. Follow cues - When speaking about sexual and domestic violence, it’s best to take cues from those who have actually experienced the trauma and are speaking. Listen first and then model their language so that they know you are respectful of their experiences and are truly paying attention to their needs.
4. Support - Be supportive of anyone who opens up about trauma. Believe survivors. Support survivors. The world will be a much better place.
So what about you? Are you having any questions or concerns navigating the landscape of how to speak with survivors about sexual and domestic violence? We would love to hear from you. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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