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Words matter, and as sexual assault keeps on coming up in the news, you may wonder whether to call someone who experienced sexual assault a victim or a survivor. Here is why I am OK with the term survivor, but you shouldn't push it on those who aren't.

"Hope fades for more survivors of hurricane Micheal", goes one newspaper's headline as I'm writing this, while another mentions that "sick survivors of 9/11 could be granted a permanent compensation fund". 

Nothing about the word "survivor" implies that these people are OK. Rather, it indicates that something happened to them that might have killed them, and that they're still alive. Wounded, sick, permanently disabled, scarred, scared, traumatized — maybe all of those things, but still alive

I was 11 when my mother's boyfriend, who I'm pretty sure only hit on her to victimize me, since I met him before she did and he went to great lengths to get "back in touch", started raping me. I'm now 40. For the first time in decades, I honestly feel that I'm actually OK. For years, being a rape victim did stuff to me. On the surface, I could say it left me with PTSD and in therapy. On a more personal level, my subconscious sent me on a wild goose chase across the globe — ostensibly because I had identity issues from being multiethnic but really, I think, because I was hoping that I could somehow out-run the pain. (I never succeeded.) It left me first with little idea that I ought to be the master of my body, and later with not wanting to be touched by basically anyone. It created a kind of buffer of shards and anger around me that nobody could break into, to the point that I sought therapy because I knew I needed to deal with this emotion stuff to be a decent mother; mothers need to feel stuff besides numb and angry or scared all the time. I felt protective of my children, to be sure, but the shards were stuck in too deep to experience the kinds of feelings I thought other parents do. 

On the surface, I could pretend I was fine all along. On a more personal level, I was half-dead inside for a very long time. 

For the first time in decades, I can truly say that I am actually OK, since a few years ago, but more and more every day. I still feel angry — most recently, because of the whole Kavanaugh news cycle, and mostly actually not because how those currently in power in the US reacted to the whole thing (only to be expected — not right, but hardly a surprise) but because of the real women I've encountered who stand with Kavanaugh and accuse Dr Ford of lying just like I was once accused of lying about something that most definitely happened. But I can actually feel other stuff, now. I love my children with the force of a burning sun, something I'm still pleasantly surprised by sometimes. I can cry, both in sadness and joy, something I'm definitely still shocked by. I can feel happy. I look forward to things, and I believe I have a future, something people with PTSD often don't [1]. 

I am a rape survivor, and have been since I stopped being a rape victim, since I stopped being actively raped. 

Ninety-four percent of rape victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder soon after being raped [2], and a third continue to do so long after [3]. I did not escape this, and was diagnosed with PTSD for the first time shortly after my daughter was born.

Thirty-three percent of rape victims contemplate suicide, research reveals, and 13 percent attempt it [4]. Suicidal thoughts are no stranger to me, though I haven't had them in a long time. Alcohol abuse and other substance abuse is also more common among those who lived through rape [3], and I admit I've been a heavy drinker, something that contributes to early death [5]. 

I could easily not have survived this, but I did. I did, and that means I am still alive — which makes me a survivor of sexual assault. Though I truly think I am OK now, nothing about the word "survivor" itself indicates that that is so, just like nothing about surviving a hurricane or a terrorist attack implies that those still left standing, sometimes miraculously, are OK, physically or emotionally. 

I understand Katie Simon, writing for The Lily, when she says, in her piece called "I was raped. Call me a victim, not a ‘survivor’" [6]:

"For me, survivor sugarcoats the reality of rape. Survivor tells an ultimately hopeful, inspiring, empowering story. Look at us, thriving despite violence.

Survivor is easier for people to hear. It is more comfortable than victim. Victim reminds people of violent acts, of brutal realities. Survivor makes them think of rousing music and impossible courage. Survivor is the story of sexual violence that the media, the public, wants to hear."

I understand Danielle Campoamor, writing for Harper's BAZAAR, when she says, in her piece called "Stop calling sexual assault victims 'survivors' — it's time to reclaim the word 'victim'" [7]:

"Victims are now lauded as sexual assault “survivors”; superhuman beings who have overcome their traumas and surpassed their overwhelming anguish to proudly proclaim that they’re not defined by their assaults.

[...] 'Survivor' isn’t indicative of how I feel on any given day. It doesn’t accurately describe my ongoing experience as someone who was assaulted. In my opinion, it paints a misleading picture of victimhood, and healing, while silently promoting a super-human response that encourages victims to 'get over' an unspeakable violation. All so that those around them can feel more comfortable when faced with the realities of such a heinous act."

I understand, and have shared their view. I now embrace the word "survivor", though, for the simple reason that I survived. I am certainly not your daily dose of inspiration, but I'm alive. To me, the word "survivor" doesn't minimize my trauma for the benefit of random onlookers, but it does send my rapist a nice message — "up yours". And "you could have broken me, you f*cker, but I'm still here". I was a victim. Now, I am a survivor. 

What do you call people who have been through sexual assault? If they're your friends, your sisters or brothers, your daughters or your sons, your coworkers or your online buddies, that's simple. You call them Amanda, Fatima, Slavoljub, or bookworm76. You call them by their names, and you support as they start talking about sexual assault experiences

If you're writing about those who have been through sexual assault, though, as a group, you have a dilemma on your hand. Victim or survivor? Knowing that some people find the word "survivor" misplaced at best, and triggering at worst, and others might feel the same way about the word "victim", you have a dilemma. You might be prudent to explain that some people prefer one word or the other, and you may choose to use the word interchangeably. The least people who have been through sexual assault deserve is to be described the way they choose to be described.

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