The Language of Survival
TW: sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, rape culture
When I talk of the events that changed my life, I use varying degrees of honesty (often, brutality) in my use of language... I talk of when I took a gap year to work and travel. I talk of my cherished childhood friendships. I talk of my first love and it's tumultuous effects. I talk of my partner, what it is like to be with them and how kind they are to me. I talk of when my dad used to work abroad a lot and we went to visit him.
It's pretty easy to be upfront about all that. Generally, I consider myself a pretty unapologetic person, and I hold dear my loudness on specific subjects. I have been told, and do believe myself, that I am upfront and honest when talking about the terrible things people have done to me in my life.
But lately, I've begun doubting this assured confidence I have for my unashamed pride in survival. Don't get me wrong - I am deeply proud of myself for my tenacity against shitty things, but I have specifically started noticing something about the cryptic language I use whenever speaking on my survival. My language, both personal and public, often falls short of the confidence I promote in accepting my survival.
When I talk of my assaults I find myself avoiding the brute facts. The norm, as I'm sure many can relate, when I talk of the assaults and my experiences of/after them is usually "when that happened with (insert name)", "the thing that happened in (insert place)", "with what happened last year", "with what happened when I was travelling", "the thing that happened when I was young". With people who know, even those closest to me - those who have helped me sift through excruciating details and seen me cry - why can't I say "when I was sexually assaulted" or "when I was sexually abused" or the most dreaded: "when I was raped".
It's like the words, the truth of what happened, have become more muddied than the acts themselves. Slick with the shame and guilt that society has taught us to feel as survivors of a sexual crime. You worry it'll make you seem dramatic or 'crazy', you worry it'll make the person you're talking to uncomfortable, you know it will make you uncomfortable. But, aren't you already uncomfortable?
The silencing of the truth, the skirting of the issue, the avoidance of reality, sadly perpetuates the stigma that already falls hard on survivors. This use of language is not a fault of the survivors - really, it's a strength, a way of protecting oneself from the harshness of what others and even ourselves think about us. We need to and have to protect ourselves, and so we do with euphemisms and brevities. We make things just that bit easier for ourselves by not having to voice the terrors of our pasts.
But we shouldn't have to use these devices to protect ourselves - we should already feel safe enough speaking our truths. We should be supported by society enough to speak our realities, and we should be allowed to use whichever words feel right in expressing ourselves. With risk of being predictable, compare the use of our language of rape culture to the usual honesty used with other crimes: "when I was mugged", "when I was beat up", "when my house was broken into"... for these crimes, we never use the scared, padded language of rape survival.
The crimes, though importantly very different, are similar in many ways: they all consist of some person taking something from another; they all consist of a victim who was not to blame. The language used when talking of sexual assault and rape extend the shame and guilt that survivors suffer. The hiding, the quietness of it makes us wonder: was it my fault? If I can't say it out loud, if I can't put it in the right words, maybe it wasn't that bad? If it just makes people feel awkward, maybe I shouldn't bring it up, it's not that bad?
It is also worth saying that I use the word 'survivor' for myself, as I know many others do. The term gives me strength and power, and it gives me community. It reminds me that I am still me and I am the one will always be here, not them. However, many people use the word 'victim', as a way of reaffirming that the blame lies still on the perpetrator, and as a way of recognising that their personal battle may not be over, and they have not yet 'survived' it, as they are still in it.
The language of survival is understandably comforting, and is often nothing to do with protecting others, and is solely to do with protecting ourselves, and that is completely okay. We have to do what is right for us and what feels best in our journey for recovery, and our own personal language will best support us on that journey. For me, I am going to start trying to reclaim the terrible things people did to me, to try and clear out the tough stains of shame and guilt. So, I will say it: I was sexually assaulted, I was sexually abused, I was raped.