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Reclaiming “victim”: Exploring alternatives to the heteronormative “victim to survivor” discourse

Date: November 22, 2011

Feminists organizing against domestic and sexual violence generally use the word “survivor” instead of “victim” to refer to people who experience violence (unless, of course, the person is murdered, in which case the term “survivor” obviously does not apply). “From victim to survivor” (and even “to thriver” sometimes) is a model often invoked by people who are working to heal and empower victims/survivors of abuse as well as by the victims/survivors themselves.

I myself have used the word “survivor” for many years. But as I began questioning “survivor” narratives and exploring negative survivorship as a compelling alternative to the cult of compulsory hopefulness and optimism in the “trauma recovery industry,” I came to identify with and embracing the term “victim” more. I never felt that I survive well enough to call myself a survivor anyway.

Many people prefer the word “survivor” to “victim” because “survivor” feels strong and proactive. I understand that, as that is precisely how I felt for a long time also, but I am starting to think that we need to honor and embrace weakness, vulnerability, and passivity as well, or else we end up blaming and invalidating victims (including myself) who do not feel strong some or most of the times.

The society views victimhood as something that must be overcome. When we are victimized, we are (sometimes) afforded a small allowance of time, space, and resources in order to recover–limited and conditional exemptions from normal societal expectations and responsibilities–and are given a different set of expectations and responsibilities that we must live up to (mainly focused around getting help, taking care of ourselves, and recovering). “Healing” is not optional, but is a mandatory process by which a “victim” is transformed into a “survivor”; the failure to successfully complete this transformation results in victim-blaming and sanctions.

This is the so-called “victim role,” an extension of sociologist Talcott Parsons’ theory of “sick role.” The society needs victims to quickly transition out of victimhood into survivorship so that we can return to our previous positions in the heteronormative and capitalist social and economic arrangements. That, I believe, is the source of this immense pressure to become survivors rather than victims, a cultural attitude that even many feminist groups have internalized.

This victim-to-survivor discourse is a common theme in the trauma recovery services/industry. A self-help website, for example, states:

This section is about moving from Victim-To-Survivor.

This is an action step, and a change in mentality.

Yes, you are a victim of sexual abuse, but a victim stays in a victim role and never moves further and changes any behaviors that might change the outcome of the feelings that you are suffering from.

You can’t change what happened to you… but you CAN change how you will react to it and how you want your life to be from this day forward!

Once you make the decision to recover, you have the power to change your life!!

Your abuser does not have to win! You can take back your power and move on and not stay stuck where you are!

Hence, victimhood is construed as static and uncomfortable. Being a victim means that the abuser has won, and the victim is left without any “power” and is “stuck” where she or he is. The only hope for the victim is not a revolution, or community accountability and care, but “a change in mentality.” I find this rhetoric overly apolitical, individualistic, and victim-blaming.

Such messages are not uncommon. Another examples is a recent (10/26/2011) “expert blog” article on Mayo Clinic website, which is ironically titled “Victim or survivor? It’s your choice.” When I first saw the title, I thought the article was about how we as victims and survivors get to define our own experiences. but it wasn’t. Because the author is an oncologist, I assume that it is an advice intended for cancer survivors–but the article itself does not make that explicit, and his comments feels very similar to things people say to victims/survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Everyone has setbacks, disappointments and frustrations. But the way you respond to these challenges and opportunities is what defines you. Whether you become a victim or a “seasoned survivor” depends on your attitude and the way you view the setback.

When faced with an overwhelming crisis, whether personal, spiritual or financial, your circuits can be overloaded. You may feel paralyzed. However, once a little time has passed, you can marshal your options to creatively deal with the problem.

Whatever has happened, you can choose to whine and complain about it, or to profit and learn from the experience. Whining is not only unproductive, it also pushes away your support network. Friends and colleagues will listen for just so long, but then it is time to move on. The choice is yours. Your life depends on it.

Once again, victims who “whine and complain” are blamed for causing their own suffering by pushing away our support networks, as if our mentality is the only barrier for us victims/survivors to thrive. While the author pretends to offer “choices,” he is clearly promoting normative survivorship over “unproductive” whining and complaining, blaming those of us who remain “victims” for failing to live up to our societal expectations.

I argue that feminist anti-violence movements and communities must embrace unproductive whining and complaining as legitimate means of survival in a world that cannot be made just by simply changing our individual mentalities. We must acknowledge that weakness, vulnerability, and passivity are every bit as creative and resilient as strength and activeness. And I think we can start that by reclaiming “victim” and “victimhood” and resisting the heteronormative “victim to survivor” discourse of the trauma recovery industry that imposes compulsory hopefulness and optimism in the service of neoliberal capitalist production.


  1. Today, I told my therapist of 10 years that I was a victim of childhood abuse. She said that I was not a victim. I told her that I believed that the demeaning of the word ‘victim’ was a shallow justification to avoid discomfort at the transgression of justice about which other people felt helpless about remedying. She looked away uncomfortably and said that what she meant by saying that I was not a victim, was that the abuse was in the past. But, yes, she agreed that I had been transgressed against and that it was wrong for any child to grow up in a household where terror ruled. On the drive home, I was imagining telling her that by her logic, a rape victim should not be called a victim because the rape was not currently ongoing or a Holocaust survivor should not be called a victim because they are no longer in a concentration camp. I have long thought that accusations of ‘victim mentality’ have long been used by the Right to dismiss legitimate claims of injustice. This tactic has proven so successful, that even caring therapists seem convinced on some level beyond their awareness that considering oneself a victim is always illegitimate.

    I’m so glad that my desperate google search unearthed this article by you. The term ‘victim’ has to be reclaimed.

    Comment by Ramona Rosario — January 10, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

  2. Some friends were linking to this–I’m glad, because it’s really excellent. Thanks for putting this into words.

    Comment by Laughingrat — January 12, 2012 @ 6:18 am

  3. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who feels this way about the victim/survivor dichotomy. Ironically, if I didn’t have to spend so much time and energy defending myself from being perceived as a victim (why should I have to do this?) then I would have more energy to spend on being open to my natural healing process, regardless of how others perceive it.

    Comment by anon — February 19, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  4. Love, love, LOVE this article! I’m having a big read of everything I can find on reclaiming the word “victim”, and this really helps put it into context; whether one agrees with the arguments or not, they are very plausible. When I talk about people who have had horrific experiences forced upon them I say “victims/survivors” rather than one or the other. Regarding my own abuse, I use whichever feels most appropriate for any given context, but I wouldn’t dream of telling someone that they were wrong for self-identifying by whichever feels right to them.

    Comment by Jan — April 9, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  5. Finding this now, and enjoying your site a lot. I was sexually abused by my Boy Scout master for 2 and 1/2 years in high school, and have spent a while trying to come up with an alternate to the victim-survivor discourse, which you put into words so well here, the peppy exclamation marks, followed by the indirect threats: “you have the power! the choice is yours!” but “your life depends upon it” so you had better make the right choice. As if we aren’t aware of the consequences already.

    I have been a victim, I am surviving, I was abused, and lately most days I make it from one end to the other, sometimes with a modicum of grace. And I am glad that someone has pointed out that it is not so simple.

    Thank you.

    Comment by mark — March 9, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

  6. I used to worry about the dichotomy of victim/surviviour. But after two police investigations into the sexual violence I endured as a child, and one very public court case (a pack of journalists with cameras really did chase me!!!) I don’t think of myself as either victim or survivor any more. Now I think of myself as a veteran. Primarily, I’m a veteran of the original violence where I did two tours; additionally, I’m a veteran of the justice system, where I did another two tours. In the past, I’ve even been diagnosed with the same sorts of psychological injury as a military veteran… They get PTSD and I did too. (Its well controlled now, and doesn’t cause me the trouble is used to, but that doesn’t detract from the suffering it caused or the risks to my welfare).

    I agree with your criticism of the “whine” pep-talk by the oncologist. The term “whine” suggests immaturity and belittles the injury. Sex crime and other violence is destructive to the whole self – biologically, socially, spiritually and often economically. It has profound consequences, so of which can never be remedied.

    Comment by Liz — October 23, 2014 @ 2:01 am

  7. […] Koyama’s short and brilliant essay from 2011, Reclaiming “victim”: Exploring alternatives to the heteronormative “victim to survivor” disc…, she addresses the societal issue with the identifying as a […]

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  8. […] elevating those who “move forward,” the victim/survivor dichotomy implicitly condemns those who do not, reaffirming myths about what constitutes a good versus bad survivor, and […]

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  9. […] and powerful than “victim”. However, I came across a couple of articles (here and here) that talk about how both words are equally valid, and I tend to […]

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