“Victim” vs. “Survivor”

I don’t like the word “victim”. Mostly because I don’t like the connotations—the dictionary definition is “a person harmed, injured, or killed as the result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” But when people talk about victims, they aren’t just talking about a person who was hurt or killed. They’re talking about the hurt, the death, the tragedy that made the victim. The word conjures a certain image of frailty, of brokenness.

And that’s not fair.

The word “victim” is appropriate in some cases and some contexts. The justice system and academia uses it in a precise way. In the dictionary-definition way. But all of that gets twisted round by how the media and people on the street use it. Social workers, support groups, and counsellors of all stripes encourage people who have been victimized not to adopt the label of “victim” because of the connotations attached. Because of the way it can warp your perceptions and expectations of yourself.

The word most commonly used to replace “victim” is “survivor”—if, of course, the person did live through the incident in question. But I don’t think “survivor” is a great word, either. It’s definitely better, because it emphasizes the fact that it was an incident you lived through, and is a positive trait when turned into an “I am” statement. But it still focusses on the wrong thing, in my opinion, because it puts the emphasis on the incident, on the trauma, and less about moving on from it. Because, yes, it is undeniably powerful to say “I’m a survivor, I lived through this”, but we deserve more than just survival. We deserve to heal. To live. To have our lives defined by more than just our trauma.

When I talk about what happened to me, I don’t use those words. I talk about things that happened to me. Or things that someone did. I don’t dance around words like “abuse”, “assault”, or “afraid”. I use them if and when they are appropriate to describe my experience. But “victim” isn’t appropriate. Not for me. And neither, really, is “survivor”. Depending on what I’m describing, I might use “target”. As in, “I was the target of a hate crime”. Which I was. But my word choice there makes what happened about the person who did it, rather than about me, and my trauma, and whatever I “must’ve done” to bring it on myself. It argues that the important part of that sentence, the takeaway point, is not that I was confronted with unnecessary violence and hatred, but that someone felt the need to subject a complete stranger to violent hatred for no good reason. It makes it about the person who did something wrong, and the fact that it was wrong, rather than glorifying my pain.

Because I’m not interested in living in the past, inside all the hurt that others have heaped on my head. It was bad enough to experience the first time. I don’t want to give the people who hurt me the satisfaction of crippling me forever. I want to find a way to be happy. To do things that are meaningful. To grow and learn and love and live as fully as I can.

I’m not a victim. I’m not a survivor. I’m a person.


I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.


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