When talking about sexual assault we use specific language and terms intentionally. There is a need to have a common understanding of the terms that we use when communicating with each other. We use the terms “survivor” and “perpetrator” often. It is important in our work and in our communities that we are always questioning our philosophies, words, and meanings. Let’s take a look at the ways we have settled on these terms — we can see how we got here and where we need to push ourselves to go. Once our language gets stagnant, have our ideas also become fixed? This is the very beginning of an ongoing conversation that challenges our fundamental stance(s) on sexual assault by upsetting the language on which we rely.
We use the term survivor with the intention of using language that restores power to someone who has had power taken away from them. It is a response to the older common term of “victim” which only served to amplify the negative connotations heaped onto someone affected by sexual assault. Survivor is a positive term showing that the event has been overcome, but is still part of the person’s experience. But is this a concept complete for the survivor? Are all “survivors” comfortable with the term or feel that it applies to them? When does one get to leave the title of survivor behind? It is convenient to feel like the replacement of far more negative terms like victim suit our needs, but we should not rest in contentment and instead challenge the deeper meaning of applying a single term to such a wide range of complexity and experience. When we find ourselves referring to someone as a “survivor” over and over again, perhaps it is time to step back and look at the individuals experience as a whole – outside of just the word.
Likewise, we have settled into using “perpetrator” to commonly refer to the person opposite the survivor in a situation around sexual assault. We use this term because we feel that it represents a recognition that someone did something, not is something. It gives the opportunity for change while recognizing that their actions have hurt someone. This language is imperfect in serious ways as well. As with “survivor”, it may not be obvious that our definitions imply such things. We can ask the same questions that we ask when inserting the individuals position into the term of survivor: Do all perpetrators feel like the term applies to them? When does one get to leave the title of perpetrator behind? Furthermore, when we look at the larger implications of how we are approaching this work, we can see how “perpetrator” is reflecting the language of the oppressive systems we live under. While we have rejected the callous use of the term victim as used by the police – we still follow their use of the term perpetrator. We are trying to create a community based system that is outside of these institutions, so why should we replicate the same language?
These are terms of convenience and for now are the terms that we use. This is only to hope that we are challenging these ideas as we use them and are working on ways to evolve our language as our work around the issues at the heart of the matter evolves. Perhaps we should be challenging ourselves and each other to find easily understood and less problematic language to use around sexual assault.
Are there other terms you use or have heard for those who have been affected by sexual assault? Why were those used? Which ones feel good and which ones feel bad? Why? This is just the beginning. Let’s nurture and honor the path which has gotten us to this place and create the space to untangle the roots and go further.