On the first day of class in my second year of law school, the professor for Advanced Criminal Defense asked us, "What do we never call the defendant?"
Many people exchanged puzzled looks, recognizing this is a trick question but at a loss for the answer. I had learned this lesson during my summer internship at a public defender's office, so I raise my hand and answer, 'The defendant.'"
The professor nods. "You've got it. What do we never call the victim?"
Another person volunteers, getting the point. "The victim."
What is the point? Language matters. How we identify someone matters. How we identify ourselves matters.
First lesson in criminal defense: if you are the attorney for a person accused of a crime, then you do everything in your power to humanize that person. Mainly, you use their name, while the prosecutor will only call your client the "defendant" in an effort to dehumanize them. The prosecutor will call the person harmed by the crime a "victim." If you are the defense attorney, you will NEVER use that word — the "victim" becomes the "complaining witness."
Each side uses their choice of words for a specific purpose. We want to set a certain tone in the minds of the judge and jury. We want you to already be viewing the person in the courtroom in the light most favorable to our side. And that makes sense. That is lawyering, the twisting of language. In the specific context of a courtroom, you should be called a victim.
But we need to be careful about letting this label of victim' seep into our psyches and become a part of our identity.
I attended a lecture about restorative justice and the speaker introduced a stunning and radical concept to us, one that almost immediately activated my defensive ready-retorts. She said, "being labeled as a 'victim' is more harmful than helpful."
I was ready to engage in a heated debate, because I had worked with victims before, had friends who'd been victimized, and experienced my own trauma — so I was hyper-alert to victim-blaming. Yet, the more I heard about from her, the more I realized that the speaker was correct. She explained that other developed countries have different ways of obtaining justice, one that empowers the victim by allowing them to a part of the conversation, if they want — that is, the conversation about how to punish the perpetrator, or what restitution they desire to see.
"This," the speaker concluded, "allows the 'victim' of this crime to heal and get the justice that they want, not one that the system imposes upon them. After that, they are done with being the 'victim.'"
I thought this incredibly profound.
What does the word victim invoke? Victims need to be cared for. They aren't strong. And that, to me, is the opposite of how we want to treat people who have survived trauma. We should find ways to empower, not weaken, them.
I propose the following: the psychological effect of victimhood combined with society's mixed responses to being called a victim is more detrimental than healing. I'm not saying that there aren't times when that label is appropriate — but it has become the dominant identity for so many women and casts a paternalistic taint we need to reject.
The more you are called a victim, the more it becomes engrained.* I feel like I am straddling the line while I write this, a line between possibly victim-blaming and empowerment. Here's the thing. I am not saying that you are in some way at fault for whatever happened. I want to focus on the later, when you have to go home and live with the trauma, the terrible things that happened. At that point, you are no longer a victim. That is not an identity that needs to stalk you. Victimhood does not need to last forever. Maybe your assaulter or victimizer remains unpunished or unnamed. Maybe you still experience post-traumatic stress or anxiety or depression from what happened. But remember, that can be separate from your identity. The situation in which you were a victim can be divorced from your life afterwards.
I have worked in both the prosecutor and public defender's office. Many people who had crimes perpetuated against them want nothing to do with the criminal justice system. They do not want to testify. They do not want to talk to me. They do not want to relive the trauma. At first, I didn't understand. I thought it was weak, that not "standing up" for yourself by testifying was taking the easy way out. How could you move on if you didn't confront your alleged perpetrator? Where was the closure? No justice! But now I see the rationality of it and I think we can all learn from that response to when bad things happen to us. If you stop identifying yourself as a victim, you can stop being one.
Society alternately views victims with sympathy and distaste. I googled the definition of victim and the first two results were: 1) a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. Fair enough. But then 2) a person who is tricked or duped. Terrible as that second definition might be, we can't ignore the way society perceives and defines that word. Instead, we should discard self-identifying as a victim.
Another aspect that strikes me about society identifying the survivors of sexual trauma — who are mostly women**— is that it is another way men can control women. This is the paternalistic taint, where society can push women into the box they want them. Women are more easily controlled when they are relegated to victimhood, made to think that they are too weak to make their own decisions and need to be taken care of. What used to happen was that sexual assault got swept under the rug, and there was a universal presumption that there was no harm done. But now we've gone the opposite way, the presumption being that there was "severe harm done," without listening to the women's own views about this trauma.
I wrote this because I am tired of identifying people as victims. I am tired of seeing strong women wilt under the pressure of conforming to what a victim looks like. When I advocate for a person who experienced trauma at the hands of another, I now start by telling the person's life story. Because it didn't start or end on the day that something bad happened to them.
So stop calling yourself a victim. You are more than that. You are a complex and beautiful human being, with interests and flaws and personality. Allow yourself to heal from traumatic experiences. Living well is the best revenge.
I assumed a few things with this bald statement. First ,that the goal of a person who experienced trauma at the hands of another person is to heal. I am not tackling the issue of retribution or punishment. Second, this is aimed at women, and when I wrote this, I had in mind people who were sexually assaulted. Third, the victims referred to are victims of discrete incidents, not on-going abuse or trauma. And fourth, I am not a trained mental health professional. I am making broad generalizations that might not fit your situation.
*See Patient, Victim, or Survivor: Does Language Matter?: A Conversation With Claudia Bayliff. Journal of Forensic Nursing: April/June 2015 - Volume 11 - Issue 2 - p 63–65
**The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that 9 out of 10 people who are sexually assaulted are women.