#IWD2018 – Are women victims, survivors, none or both… and does rape really make us stronger?

CW: rape, mental health, trauma, violence

Written by Jessica Eaton and Anon

8th March 2018 – International Women’s Day


I would like to dedicate this special edition blog to all of the women and girls who never felt like a survivor, who don’t like the word victim and are searching for a way to understand who they are and how they feel after sexual violence. To the women and girls who live with the effects of abuse and rape, navigating their way through the narratives of how a female ‘should’ behave and ‘should’ recover after sexual violence. Love to you all.

I would also like to express my admiration for the young woman who wrote the letter to me, and the woman who supported her to do so. I hope I have done a good job presenting your pertinent questions and your rage. Rage on. 


How important is the label of ‘survivor’? What about ‘victim’? What about the narrative that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’? What about the message women are given, that being raped or abused somehow makes them a better person in the long run, having lived through and ‘survived’ such traumas?

These are not neutral words and phrases, they are laden with meaning, politics, promise, religion, belief and culture. People from one side claim that we should be using the word ‘survivor’ – people from another side claim that we should be recognising victimhood. The battle of linguistics and empowerment after male violence rages on.

For International Women’s day, I am privileged to present and discuss the outstanding writing of a young woman who wrote a letter to me (below) on the 28th January 2018.

I was checking my emails back in January when I came across an email from this young woman, who had been raped and abused; she asked me to read her writing and whether I would publish it for her. As I read, I became enthralled, as I am sure you will. Her writing is clear, her thoughts are punchy. She argues about some things I have been wrestling with in my own writing and in my own PhD. What does our language tell us about women who are raped? What does it tell us about the man who raped her?

For a long time now, I have felt uncomfortable with both ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’. When I started to write up my PhD, I wondered what word I should use. Rather than taking a guess, I started to search the literature for explorations of linguistics in rape and sexual violence.

There is considerable debate around the way that women are described following sexual violence.

Are they a ‘rape victim’ or are they a ‘rape survivor’?

‘Rape victim’ is generally argued to be disempowering, static and negative for the recovery of the woman (Hockett & Saucier, 2015) and focusses wholly on the negative experience and consequences. Campaigners and academics proposed that changing the language to ‘rape survivor’ empowers the woman, is more future-focussed and elicits less blame responses than ‘victim’.

However, the reality is that the experiences and psychological state of women after rape cannot be contained within the dichotomy of ‘victim or survivor’ – trauma, and humans, are much more complex than these two labels.

For example, work by Maria Lugones (2003) in line with the feminist humanist perspective, argued that women often identified as one of the labels, the other, both or neither. It often changes throughout their lives, too.

When I speak about this, I often teach professionals that they should not attempt to define women. They should not tell a woman who feels like a victim of her rapist that she is a survivor. They should not tell a woman who feels like a survivor of sexual trauma, that she is a victim. There is also no continuum a woman should move across – she doesn’t start off as a victim and then become a survivor – this is simply untrue.

And yet, here are just some examples I found online:

Women spend decades processing and exploring what happened to them. They may well feel like a victim for years, then eventually start to identify with the word ‘survivor’ – but what happens when the ‘survivor’ starts being triggered by something new, or has nightmares again? What happens when she suddenly feels like a ‘victim’ again? Has she somehow gone backwards in our expectations of her recovery? Is she failing?

What about the women who strongly argue that they are victims of repeated, serious crimes. Trafficking. FGM. Rapes. Child abuse. Exploitation. They argue that they don’t feel like a survivor, because their traumas have changed their lives forever. Are they lesser because they don’t feel like a survivor? What if they never feel like a survivor? What’s wrong with that?

And what about the narrative around the rape making her stronger? Making her a better person? Making her more resilient? Where does that leave her? This is something the young woman wrote to me in January. Was the rape a gift? Was the rape bestowed upon her?

How does that position the guy who raped her? She writes to me:

What does this tale of perseverance say to our rapist? That his dick made us stronger? That we have him to thank for our fortitude and our survivor mentality? That he has somehow bestowed upon us the ability to transcend adversity and find tranquility. That the grit and courage we so powerfully embody wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t raped us?

And she is right. What does this mean? Even in rape, he is positioned as the giver of resilience and newly found courage. She has every right to be so angry at this narrative that women are fed. Are we supposed to thank male violence for making us who we are today? Are we supposed to be grateful that women are raped and abused, because it made them stronger?

In her letter to me, this tenacious young woman talks about trauma recovery too. She questions the rhetoric of traumas making us bolder and better in the future and the assumption that everyone moves towards recovery, in some sort of linear fashion, through some imaginary stages. It reminds me of all of the ‘stages of recovery’ models. The ‘stages of grief’ models. The ‘stages of recovery from abuse’ models. Why do they all go in a line? Why are they all so straight and pretty and simple? Why are women supposed to move from one, to the other, to the other, nice and steady? From denial, to anger, to sadness, to blah blah blah all the way to acceptance and then to survivor. Survivor is the goal isn’t it? Can’t be a victim, must be a survivor. Can’t stay angry too long, must get to acceptance of your abuse. And all the arrows on those models flow in one direction – forward. Never backwards, or sideways, or a massive scribble. We can’t possibly flow those ways, because then we are failing in trauma recovery.

And what happens to the women who struggle? Rightly so. What happens to the women who are too scared to get back into a relationship? The women who are too scared to go to the shops alone? The women who have flashbacks during sex? Well, we know what is happening to those women – they are told they are mentally ill or have personality disorders. They are known as ‘troubled’ or ‘unstable’. Scores of women and girls with long sexual trauma and abuse histories are being told that their personality is disordered or they have a mental health issue because they are not recovering in line with our white, western, elitist, medicalised models. Their traumas took too long for the models. Their trauma recovery time limit expired, didn’t it?

So, enough of my thoughts. Read the words of this brilliant young woman and think about the way we are fed social norms of ‘survivor’ and ‘recovery’ – and the way we are taught that living through rapes and abuse make us better women.


Dear Jessica

I am not thinking of one time, or one person. I am thinking of hundreds of times, and god knows how many people. How many men. How many… Rapists.                

 Mute. That is the best way to describe it. It feels like someone is strangling me from the inside. All of those people that treated me like a ‘thing’ have their hands clenched round my voice, round my neck, gripping tightly. Gut-wrenching and head spinning; it feels like the air inside my body has gone.

It feels like you have been thrown into a whole new dimension. Everything is the same, but nothing is the same. Things keep moving, people keep living but you have stopped. You don’t keep going.

You’re just there. You see things, people and yourself in a very different way. You can’t get back to ‘normal’ because you have lost your normal. Normal meant trusting, normal meant not being harmed. You now know it can happen to you – this world doesn’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe.

 I kept quiet. My voice vanished. I learnt to blend into the background. To be invisible. I did not learn to do this at the hands of the many who decided to harm me, those who decided I was worth nothing. But I got lost in the system, I was let down by the system. I spoke. With my voice feeling crushed, I shared the fact I was a victim. I felt vulnerable, but I did speak. I wasn’t believed. I was questioned. I was blamed. That added to another hand around my neck, clenching my voice tighter, persuading me to stay silent. My worth was confirmed. I was nothing and no one felt that I deserved help.

 My voice is becoming less restrained, as I learn that I can talk, I am believed and that I deserve help. But I am defined by nearly 20 years of abuse, 20 years of being told I am nothing. 

As a “victim” we are forced to define our pain. We get told to “heal” and this great weight of pressure is forced upon our shoulders to “move forward” and “let go of the past”. I have been told to survive. In fact, “survivor” has become the preferred label to describe our plight. A line has been drawn in the sand and we must choose, I am either a victim, drowning in this assumed weakness and frailty, or a survivor; proudly thriving in my newfound strength. But I cannot be both.

 Society has spoon-fed us the false assumption that we will all reclaim our trauma and go on to lead stronger, braver, bolder lives than we would have if we weren’t raped. Society is quick to encourage us to embrace the resolute tenacity of a survivor. It forgets that we’ve been bruised, beaten and penetrated, in every way a person can be. It forgets that healing takes time and that this isn’t just a heartache or a loss. “You are resilient”, they say. “You will rise from the ashes of your pain with more power than you ever knew you had”…


 What does this tale of perseverance say to our rapist? That his dick made us stronger? That we have him to thank for our fortitude and our survivor mentality? That he has somehow bestowed upon us the ability to transcend adversity and find tranquility. That the grit and courage we so powerfully embody wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t raped us?

 What does it say to the victims who don’t feel whole and healed? To those who still wake up screaming in the middle of the night plagued by memories of their abuse. To those triggered by a sound or a smell or place. What does this jargon say to those who remain broken beyond repair, to those who haven’t publicly rebounded and come out the other side “proud of who they are.”

The unfortunate reality is that healing doesn’t have a distinguishable end. Healing is irreconcilable pain. It is instability and loss and grief and fear. It is shame so deep it pulls on every single part of your body, pushing every muscle down until you feel so small that you simply want to scrunch up as tight as possible and stay there – completely and utterly still. It is trauma that sleeps under your skin, only to manifest in ways you could never imagine, in ways that will stay with you your entire life.

Fear will follow you everywhere. Going for a smear test? Never happening. Even going to the Dr’s alone is a task that now appears unbearable. Changing in the changing rooms, feeling exposed – it feels sickening. Laying on your bed and waking in the night to see you’re in the exact position that you experienced the hurt. You panic. Scrunch up tight. Close your eyes and scream in your head that you would do anything, ANYTHING for this to simply vanish. Your trust in the world has been stolen.

Rape is not a singular thing, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and it will never just be “something that happened”.

Written 28 January 2018 – Name protected

Thank you so much for reading.

In Solidarity, Jessica and Anon


12 thoughts on “#IWD2018 – Are women victims, survivors, none or both… and does rape really make us stronger?

  1. When my parent died unexpectedly, I saw a counsellor and bought a book. Both explained the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I felt all these together, not as stages: they battered me simultaneously; sometimes equally; sometimes by turns. Better advice came from a friend, who said grief is like a large, ugly piece of furniture appearing in your living room. You can’t get rid of it but, over time, you learn to live with it.

    I feel the same way about my experiences of violence, including rape. They change you. They inform your world view because now you have seen and felt parts of the world that some people never have to know, and few like to discuss. It is, however, information – both about the world and about ourselves. This information becomes part of our internal landscape, like the grief.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the words ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’. They’re plain facts. I have been a victim of others’ actions _and_ of fate/circumstance, and I survived. The problems with these words are the values other people like to attach, as you and Anon describe. If someone wants to see me as “A Victim”, they give themselves permission to take a role – maybe as a helpful guide, perhaps as superior in some way. When they label me “A Survivor”, they permit themselves to continue ignoring the parts of the world I have seen. I survived, it’s okay, end of story.

    I don’t think we can stop other people adding their own narratives to our experiences. The only sane response is to let them have their thoughts & feelings; they are not ours. We have our information, our own thoughts & feelings, and hopefully enough tools to process those into narratives that work for us internally. In doing this – actually, we do grow strong! Not in ways we would have chosen, and almost certainly not as those well-wishers would like – but we develop new strengths. A better word might be ‘wisdom’, which is itself a strength.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. This is so powerful. I wonder if I should share it with my journalism students. I’ve often questioned the use of the term “victim” but never “survivor”. On occasion, I’ve been known to say “there are no words” when I’ve been rendered speechless. I’m speechless. Yet grateful to both Jessica and Anon.


  3. I hate being called a “survivor”; it’s like we’ve glossed *right* over the CRIMES AGAINST ME, and failed to acknowledge my shock, horror, and injuries. I have been kicked out of Life.

    I really liked this article; it’s so great, I shared it with my psychologist, since we’re ALL now on this journey, together.


  4. I am still learning to survive My abuse occured within a long and painful marriage and when I left I truly left everything behind in a home I had taken the bigger part in
    building with children etc Inso far as material possesions go I was refused pre marriage familial belongings. and that hurt ? I know what wasn’t wanted by him went on the rubbish tip. I have been with trauma since I left 13 yrs ago and that’s not including the humiliation I suffered within the relationship which I’m still working with to try and overcome? I liken the experience to being a long term prisoner of war, a term my doctor used which I do feel to be pretty spot on.It’s uncivilised and deeply barbaric I have learned more than I would have ever wanted to know in this lifetime about masculine cruelty . I hold him and our justice system in the deepest contempt because both know exactly what they are doing and it is deliberate. I am recovering and strangely feel stronger than I did before without knowing why? I cannot feel that depth of pain ever again and I wear my anger and contempt with pride I am no stranger to depravity any longer A strange comfort somehow ?
    I did a Master’s degree in Social science with the Open University and I’m sure it’s education set me intellectually freeThank you for reading some of my thoughts .


  5. Thank you Jessica and especially Anon. I tend to think of it more as a burden or a cost imposed on us, some times we have the energy and strengthen to carry it, sometimes not. But we should not have had to carry it, but here we are.


  6. All I know for sure is that I’m still here and that healing is possible. It is. After many years have passed and multiple instances, I opened my mouth to sing about my internal victory, hoping to encourage the next person to keep going until you find your way out of the darkness. Love to you all! https://youtu.be/pU6GIAHK7hY


  7. Thank you Anon. It has been 53 years since I was brutally gang raped and left for dead. Most days I’m steady. The Kavanaugh drama has dredged up the horror and I am definitely not a survivor today. Your letter made me feel less alone. Sometimes our experiences fade to the background, but for me they never completely go away. Love to all who have experienced the strangulation of this invasion of our peace.


  8. I was searching for this blog. I had an attack last night and I spent my whole night rolling in bed screaming and crying to myself, reliving everything I had felt. Thank you for this, Im a recent victim again and it has happened several times to me.


    1. It might happen for a long time if you are triggered by something, or if you still need to process it, it’s completely normal. X


    2. Seek help, don’t go through that by yourself. Find someone to talk to about it when you feel that you can do it, someone who you trust and who can make you feel better. It’ll be a tough road though, I wish the best for you.


  9. I think that legally and unfortunately in reality there are abstruse or metaphysical aspects to the issue of being raped. It is a really hard and unhappy road and I applaud the women who are able to get alot of female support.


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