Up until a few years ago, those of you who knew me, especially in high school and college, it is highly unlikely that you knew my story. I am one of the many; one of the countless survivors of sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence.
Working as a DV advocate some may say we are acting like a perpetual victim. I have found that criticism is part of the job. So, I wanted to take sometime and share my experience and how society views us. How we are shamed, judged and in some cases shunned. I am a victim. No shame there; it’s true. A victim is someone harmed, injured or destroyed as a result of a crime. That fits for me, and to claim otherwise would negate my experience and deny the damage of the sexual abuse I endured for years as a child or my rape at 15 or my many years of domestic abuse. Victim. While it is not my primary identity, it will always be a part of who I am.
This is nothing new to me, being call a perpetual victim is not original and these kinds of comments just bounce right off me these days. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which we are often told that we are at fault, that there is something wrong with us, we as women are taught that our bodies are here for the pleasure of others, we are judged by our appearance and shamed into keeping our trauma a secret because no one wants to hear it. We are afraid that no one will believe us even if we seek justice or help.
It is very common when you are involved in activism, speaking engagements or the fact that you speak openly about overcoming your struggles, you will be more likely than not be accused of having a “victim complex or mentality.”
So should we stop talking about oppression and trauma in order to just “get over” it? To make society comfortable?
• “Victim” – has become a word used to hurt:
It has been my personal experience that sometimes when people want to hurt me, their default mechanism is to call me a “victim.” This is not an empty word. Before you call someone a victim please remember that the memories of the trauma we have been through stay inside our psyche always. We want and desire to be 100% strong as adults but we feel hurt sometimes and we CAN regress. Then we try to soothe ourselves somehow so we can be our adult selves and start over again. Believe me, It is not easy to put your self out their day after day, being vulnerable in order to effect change and help others who are struggling and going through pain. The best medicine I have found is to be able to come alongside someone and say “I know what you are going through. In order to do this we MUST tell our stories and be vocal about what has happened in our lives.
On a recent TV commercial, a famous athlete admitted that he had been suffering from a debilitating disease for years but had never told anyone. Then he said, “I’m not saying I am a victim, but I just want you to know there is treatment that works.” He then went on to sell the product he was endorsing. The fact that he needed to make the point that he was not a victim upset me. He had just admitted that he had been a victim of this disease for years. Why did he feel compelled to let us know he was not a victim?
The answer I am afraid, is actually really quite simple. He probably said it because he was afraid that he would be perceived as a victim and it was going to tarnish or ruin his reputation as a famous athlete. He said it because he wanted to make it clear that just because he had this disease it didn’t mean he wasn’t still big and tough and strong. He said it because like so many other Americans, being perceived as a victim is synonymous with being seen as being weak and being a loser.
It made me wonder when did “victim” become a bad word? Merriam-Webster’s definition of victim is a person who has been attacked, injured, robbed, or killed by someone else or someone who has been harmed by an unpleasant event (such as illness or accident). There is nothing either stated or implied in the definition that indicates weakness.
More important, when did being perceived as a victim become a bad thing?
Yes, I am a survivor, but completely ignoring my victim hood minimizes the damage and pain that came about as a result of my perpetrator’s crimes. There is no way to make what they did OK. “Victim” is a reminder that he wasn’t just a good guy who made a mistake. He was a depraved criminal who sexually abused a little girl. I was that girl. I was his victim.
When the Malaysian flight 370 disappeared a few years ago, we saw the families of the assumed dead wailing and crying. Some were expressing anger. This was a very human and a very appropriate response to the loss of a loved one, especially the loss of a loved one in such a devastating way. But many Americans were critical of such public displays of emotion. It made us feel uncomfortable. In this country we are supposed to see the bright side of things.
I think what is really going on here is that our hero-worshiping, optimistic, “Eye of the Tiger” mentality is robbing us of our very humanity. It starts in childhood when even small children are taught to “suck it up” and be strong instead of allowing themselves to cry or feel their pain. It is especially drummed into the minds of boys.
It shows up in the numbers of children who are bullied because they are perceived as weak. It shows up in the way we respond to victims of bullies. We tell them “don’t let them see you cry” or “don’t let this get you down” instead of acknowledging to them how frightening, humiliating, and damaging it is to be taunted, pushed, or beaten by those who are bigger or stronger than we are.
We have become a culture of people who despise weakness when we see it. In that way we are all bullies to one degree or another. Think about it. Who are the school yard bullies? Experience shows us that bullies are usually children who have been abused themselves in either their home or elsewhere. These are kids who are angry because someone has been hurting them. And they feel humiliated and shamed because they have been victimized. So what do they do with their anger? They can’t take it out on their abusers, who are usually adults or older children who are much stronger or who have more power and authority than they do. So they take their anger out on those who are smaller and weaker than themselves. And what do they do with their overwhelming shame at having been overpowered? They punish those who remind them of their own weakness and vulnerability.
It is no wonder that we are raising yet another generation of bullies and abusers. Unless we turn this thing around and make it OK to admit when we have been victimized, admit when we feel bad, and not allow other people to shame us for it, the cycle will continue.
After all, in our society a woman who has been emotionally or physically abused by her husband, she must have asked for it in some way or she is exaggerating. Even if we don’t blame her for being abused, we blame her for staying. After all, if someone abuses you, you need to just walk away, right? If you don’t, you deserve what you get.
Similarly, if someone is being sexually harassed or bullied at work by her boss, she should be strong enough to walk away and find another job, right? If you have any self-respect at all you don’t stay in a situation where you aren’t valued or treated with respect. Never mind the fact that she lives paycheck to paycheck, supporting her family as a single parent.
As a society, we make all these assumptions about people who are victimized because we want to hold onto the fantasy that we all have choices, that life is always good, that all it takes to get out of a bad situation is courage and determination. We don’t want to admit that there are times when we have no choice—times (think child abuse or that single mother) when we have to take the mistreatment that others are putting on us just to survive. It is so much easier to believe that all it takes for the poor or homeless is to step out of their circumstances that they find themselves in and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We point to the few who were able to overcome tremendous obstacles and we say, “See, she did it. That means you can too.” We want to say stop your crying, stop feeling sorry for yourself and just move on.”
Again I ask, what price do we pay for this attitude?
How do you imagine that person feels? Like a failure, of course. Like a loser. She thinks, “If she can do it why can’t I?” Why can’t I overcome my rape or sexual assault? Why do I still cringe when a strange man comes up behind me? Or every time I close my eye’s I see my rapist face.
We expect instant recovery! We expect nothing less. We not only ignore and blame victims but we expect them to recover from their adversity in record time, usually on our time table. In our culture we are supposed to “get over” adversity and “move on,” and many people don’t have much tolerance or patience for those who don’t or perceive that they don’t. It is funny to me, when someone who has not been touched by trauma tells me I should be farther along in my recovery.
What I want people to understand is this; It takes time to recover from trauma or adversity, and healing can’t really take place until there is a complete acknowledgment of what actually transpired and how it made the victim feel.
Please know that Abuse and other forms of trauma cause victims to feel helpless and powerless, and these feelings can lead to feeling humiliated. In this country we tend to believe that the way to recover from adversity is for victims to deny these feelings of helplessness and powerlessness and instead focus on becoming powerful and successful.
Victims Need Validation
It is very important for everyone, but especially children, to have their feelings and experiences validated by others. Lack of validation will result in to feelings of guilt that somehow it was their fault and shame in reaction to their negative experiences. Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s internal experience as valid. When someone validates another’s experience, the message they send is: “I understand your feelings. Not only do I hear you, but I understand why you feel the way you do. You’re not bad or wrong or crazy. ”
Just as I was shamed by a friend (who really does not know me at all). Instead of receiving validation, most victims are ignored, rejected, or judged. Instead of being encouraged to express their feelings, most are shamed into silence, we can’t admit that we are afraid to hear them, afraid to face the fact that this kind of trauma really exists.
Worse still, many have their feelings and perceptions attacked, dismissed, or question the reality of a person’s feelings. This is done through denying, ridiculing, ignoring, or judging another person’s feelings. Regardless of the method, the effect is clear: this makes the invalidated person feelings somehow “wrong.” Showing compassion for someone can be a form of validation.
By continuing to blame victims, we all get to avoid facing up to our own acts of inappropriateness, indifference, and cruelty. If we continue to hold to the ideas that it is always the victim’s fault, or if we can convince ourselves that there really are no victims and even when people are victimized they should “just get over it,” we can continue to avoid looking at how we have hurt others and how it has affected them.
We desperately have to get over our hatred of victims. We have to stop pretending that victimization doesn’t exist in our society. We have to admit that when a person is victimized—whether by abuse, by poverty, by racism, or by any other form of trauma or adversity, that person is changed, at least temporarily. We must allow that person to cry and to scream and to feel his or her pain. To tell their story and believe them. That person desperately needs our compassion for his or her pain and suffering. And perhaps more importantly, that person needs validation that yes, she was abused, yes he did lose his house, yes she was raped, yes she is living in poverty. And yes, it hurts, it is painful, it is debilitating to experience these traumas, these assaults, these inequities. And it’s ok to not be ok.
So together, as a society let’s stop making “victim” a dirty word. Let’s open our minds to the truth of their situation. There are people in this world who are victimized and they have a right to have that victimization recognized and affirmed. They have a right to feel their pain and anger and helplessness. They have a right to the time it takes for them to heal. They have the right to not be pushed to “get over it” or to be grateful it wasn’t worse. They have a right to not be further shamed because they aren’t getting over it or seeing the bright side in our timeline we have made up in our heads. And perhaps most important, they have a right to our compassion, our care, and our kindness.
So, as for that man who felt the need to tell me “As long as one chooses to be a victim there can be no Victory” I have never met a victim of abuse, rape, or assault that chose to be a victim now or ever. We don’t share our stories to give you ammunition in your arsenal to hurt us or anyone else who has faced adversity. We share our stories to inspire, educate and come along side other victims of trauma. To usher in healing and hope.
To my fellow survivors, know that you are not alone. You will have days where it feels like it is all too much, but you have to believe that what you have been through is something you can handle and that asking for help will never make you weak. You are no longer a victim, you are now a survivor and that is a powerful thing. Never again will we be defined by what happened to us or what people may say.
And to those who fail to understand, I am not sorry for the words I have written here, for my story, for living my life to the best of my ability. I will not apologize for calling people out for their inappropriate behavior, for bringing awareness and educating the public on what it is like to be called a victim. The choices I have made are my own and I stand by them as I heal and become a stronger woman.