The first time I called myself a ‘survivor’ was when I [stupidly] attended the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. I was sitting in one of the photo exhibitions and a young woman holding a microphone asked if she could interview me for her radio show. She asked me why I was at the summit. I looked up and blurted out “I’m a rape survivor”.
Trigger warning: Rape
It felt dumb as hell. I was used to the R-word, so it was actually the S one that caught in my throat. It felt so ludicrously grandiose it looped back round to feeling trite, as if I was elevating myself to a label I did not qualify for. Especially given that I was surrounded by a particularly harrowing set of images of women in the Congo who had been brutally raped at the hands of soldiers during the civil war. They were definitely survivors.
I, on the other hand, had taken a day’s paid holiday and spent a tiny proportion of my disposable income on a relatively clean, frequent transport service to take me from my comfortable London flat to be sitting on that bench. Knowing me, I had probably just bought a load of overpriced food and scoffed it.
I had certainly not been raped at gunpoint, impregnated or infected with a sexually transmitted disease. My rapist was (at that time) in jail for the crime he had committed against me in a surprising moment of justice. Despite the nervous breakdown that was triggered only a week later, I was quite sure that if the S-Word described the women in these pictures, it definitely did not describe me.
I braced myself for the girl to stutter some kind of shocked ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you’ or garbled combination of the two before running away. Instead, she asked me a one or two further questions that I can’t recall, thanked me and switched off the recorder. At which point she told me she was there because she had been sexually assaulted.
Yep. Her too right? Turns out we ‘Survivors’ are pretty much fucking everywhere. That’s a side note.
I must have been happily oblivious to the point at which society decided ‘Victim’ should become ‘Survivor’. I’m broadly in favour of this change; to be a ‘Victim’ is to be in a permanent state of weakness, a passive purgatory of powerlessness. I’m not okay with being the ‘Victim’ of someone else’s story.
Elevating the ‘Victim’ to the ‘Survivor’ is to afford respect, acknowledging the life-altering nature of their experience. Survivors have power. They have faced something terrible and emerged from the other side. I’m more okay with being a ‘Survivor’ than a ‘Victim’.
After my embarrassment at a label which seemed too big, I realised that where language fails me is in a label which is too basic. It might not seem basic, largely thanks to Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle leaping about in bikinis on a tropical island. I’m not presuming to believe that Destiny’s Child haven’t had things to survive, so maybe that’s how they genuinely feel having transcended whatever it is. I do not feel that way. Where a ‘Victim’ is imprisoned by the world telling them they are to be pitied, so too is a ‘Survivor’ imprisoned in an iron cage of being presumed to be ‘brave’. Always strong, always defying something horrific. It’s not basic, it’s Amazonian! Glorified. Thrown up on a pedestal, whether they want to be up there or not.
Survival, by definition, is basic. Simultaneously a momentous cause for celebration and Brown-Paper-Bag-Boring. Debates about the definition of ‘life’ aside (whether in reference to abortion, brain death, or any other), by virtue of having a pulse, air in my lungs, and thoughts in my head, I deem myself to be alive. To exist. To have survived.
In the immediate aftermath of a trauma, this is enough. The basic, the fundamental. Do I have a pulse? Can I breathe? Do I still exist? Did I survive? This is the celebration, the miracle, the gift of continuing life.
Then there are the days. The months. The years. Periods of time that could never be deemed the ‘immediate aftermath’. During this time, I remain a ‘Survivor’. I live and die a ‘Survivor’. Survival is supposed to be a temporary stepping stone back to life; but stay there for too long and the word begins to sour.
Where language fails me is in giving me no other alternative – but how can language upgrade me past my basic label, when society will not? Society is still lagging behind, debating the nature of consent and rape, or denying its existence altogether. Society is busy laughing at rape jokes, tweeting rape threats or dropping rape plots into books, programmes and films to boost ratings under the guise of ‘reflecting real life’. I can hardly progress past my basic status of having survived when I am a citizen in a society that daily, aggressively, questions whether I should be on that pedestal at all. Whether I brought it on myself because I was dressed in some kind of inviting way (I personally don’t find retail uniform particularly appealing, but each to their own right?) or if in fact it wasn’t a real crime in the first place because I actually said yes and now I’m LYING. Every question, joke and sensational media headline invalidates my status as a ‘Survivor’.
Try telling someone to move on from a cancer diagnosis by questioning whether or not they have cancer. They might have some trouble.
I started my relationship with the S-Word in a state of embarrassment. Now it’s anger. A white hot rage from the depths of my gut sparked by having to use the S-Word in the first place. Stoked by every day discovering something new about what it means to be a ‘Survivor’. The flames are fanned every time the voice I hear talking about my experience is not mine – like many inequalities in life, the loudest voices come from those who have no personal experience of what they are shouting about. If they had, they would do better. They would stop cutting funding to support services. They would stop writing trivial storylines that barely scratch the surface of the battle that comes after. They would stop paying lip service to my ‘bravery’ by calling me a ‘ Survivor’ and leaving me alone to live with what the S-Word really means.