Call them survivors not victims: the power of language in sexual harassment

These women who have suffered sexual harassment or assault, these “accusers,”  these women  (and men) harmed by powerful men with no restraints – either internal or external – have been waiting for acknowledgement for a long time. Some spoke up and were ignored or sidelined. Others turned inward, embarrassed or ashamed or silently enraged, to deal with the trauma in secret. Well, now, suddenly, the world is listening.

What can the rest of us do? We need to acknowledge the harm, and the delay. We need to stick with this even when we run out of celebrity abusers. We need to let this become a real change, and move from looking away to looking sexual harassment in the face. We’re getting the hang of holding the abusers accountable, even if many of them haven’t mastered self-responsibility yet. But what can we do to help the women heal from their often long-standing trauma?

First, we need to stop calling them victims. Victims are weak, helpless, in need of rescue. They have no power. They have to wait for others to right the wrong. While abusers are defined by the power they have over others, the victim is defined by powerlessness. Many of the women have waited for years, decades even, for justice. And look where it finally came from – from themselves.

They spoke up and found people to listen. Journalists woke up from a fog of disinterest (and complicity) and dove in. As women began to be heard, others stepped forward. They weren’t weak, or helpless after all. It turns out that they are not victims at all, but survivors.

I learned a lot from my decades as a therapist listening to people who had been hit with events that might push any of us off the rails. One of my first duties was to make sure that we were telling the right story about what had happened and what could happen next. We do not do justice to these women if we tell a victim story. Next, we need to recognize their trauma, but also their strength and resolve. We need to call them survivors.


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