Trigger warnings for mention of rape, emotional abuse, violence against women.
Yesterday I read through the lovely Ann Voskamp’s gracious yet firm letter to “thrivers” -- those whom are not just surviving, but thriving, for getting out of bed each morning and facing the day head-on. Ann writes:
Dear Thriver,As always, Ann’s words are balm to weary souls and she speaks with the tender authority of a woman hopelessly in love with Jesus. But the contrast between being a victim and being a thriver bothered me because that’s exactly the sentiment another Christian-based post proclaimed that very same day.
You didn’t just survive, so let’s toss that myth right at the outset. I’ve seen you living chin brave through the hurt and how you keep taking one step out of bed and one through the door and how you scale mountains by relentlessly taking steps forward. The way you keep walking? You’re no victim. You’re a Thriver. You may bleed but you rise.
In “‘Guard Your Heart’ Doesn’t Mean Christians Can’t Date” at Her.meneutics (the women’s section of Christianity Today), Sharon Hodde Miller responds to my good friend Emily Maynard’s recent post on Prodigal, “I Stopped Guarding My Heart Ten Years Ago.” Sharon writes (emphasis mine):
Put another way, an unguarded heart can lead to a poisoned spiritual wellspring, one that is tainted with bitterness or self-loathing. The repercussions of an unguarded heart are especially apparent in unhealthy parent-child relationships. A number of my female friends learned to guard their hearts from a parent after years of emotional abuse. Until they did so, they were wracked with shame and insecurity. Their wellsprings were not life giving, but toxic.Some commenters, including Shaney and Dianna, addressed the emphasized point above, noting how that it was kind of victim-blamey. If there is emotional abuse in a relationship, the burden of “guarding one’s heart” should be to separate oneself from that relationship rather than build up a protective wall around your emotions so that you don’t become “wracked with shame and insecurity” or have your “wellsprings [be] not life giving, but toxic.”
We as a society seem to fundamentally misunderstand the concept and reality of what it means to be a victim versus a survivor versus a thriver.
From a purely definitional standpoint, to be a victim means to be a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency because another person inflicted destruction or injury on the victim. To be a victim does not mean that you lack agency as part of your essence; it means that someone attempted to deny your agency in inflicting harm, in rendering you less powerful or even essentially powerless.
To be clear, being a victim does not mean that you are weak or helpless or powerless by nature. Being a victim means that someone victimized you.
It’s the same semantic issue I have with well-meaning folks who proclaim that they want to be a “voice for the voiceless.” Every human being has a voice. Every human being has agency. It is others who seek to silence or minimize these voices and rob them of their agency. As Kathy Escobar recently wrote, “There’s really no such thing as ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or preferably unheard.”
The fact that words mean things is exactly why I and others take issue with Sharon’s response to Dianna’s comment below (emphasis mine):
I am curious about how and where you locate personal agency. “Victim” is not an identity we should ever use to label a person's identity. Even when a person is totally victimized by another, they have agency in how they respond to the victimization. Labeling women as complete and utter victims, to my mind, is the most agency-robbing thing we can do. What's more, it leaves no space for acknowledging personal folly or sin. While some women are victimized due to no fault of their own, being hurt by a man does not, by definition, make a woman a victim.Victim. Agency. Identity. These are heavy, incredibly important terms that need to be defined, discussed, and analyzed clearly. From Sharon’s context, she believes that labeling someone a “victim” is an insult of sorts since it denies their agency in responding to the aftermath of victimization. In a sense, I agree with her, especially in the context of sexual or domestic violence, as in continuing to call a young woman who has escaped commercial sexual exploitation a “sex trafficking victim.”
But here’s where I differ from Sharon: there is a difference between terms for one’s state of being and terms for one’s chosen identity.
The terms for one’s state of being are based on factual circumstances: Are you still being victimized? If not, are you struggling to heal? Have you mostly healed from the victimization? You are a victim if you continue to be victimized. You are a survivor if you’ve lived through victimization. You are a thriver if you are a survivor seeking to heal from victimization.
Victim. Survivor. Thriver. These are terms of identity that the person who has experienced the victimization should be able to choose for him/herself. In the example that Sharon gave about parents’ emotional abuse, it comes across as victim-blamey because in her logic, she connects not guarding one’s heart and being “wracked with shame and insecurity.” The counter to this is that if they did guard their hearts, they wouldn’t have experienced these negative emotions that led to “wellsprings [that] were not life giving, but toxic.” If you think I’m twisting her logic, reread when she literally says, “Until they did so” -- “so” meaning guard their hearts -- they experienced shame and insecurity. She said it herself.
But this “guarding your heart...or else” rhetorical construction is hardly victim blaming compared to her other assertion: “labeling women as complete and utter victims...leaves no space for acknowledging personal folly or sin. While some women are victimized due to no fault of their own, being hurt by a man does not, by definition, make a woman a victim.”
The definition of victim blaming is to hold the victim of a crime, accident, or any type of abusive maltreatment as wholly or partially responsible for the wrongful conduct committed against them.
By asserting that the term “victim” not only is agency-robbing but also absolves the victim from taking even partial responsibility for the victimization, Sharon is victim blaming. It’s the less overt cousin of the question “what were you wearing?” to a rape victim. It says “if you had done X, you could have prevented Y.”
NO. JUST NO.
There is an important distinction between prevention and harm and/or risk reduction. Prevention means to stop the crime from happening in the first place. It means that the potential rapist doesn’t end up raping. Prevention does NOT mean that the victim does something to stop the perpetrator from inflicting harm, i.e. doesn’t wear a short skirt.
Let me repeat: Victims cannot prevent their own victimization. The only person who can prevent victimization is the one who would be inflicting the harm. In other words, a rape victim could not have prevented her own rape; only the rapist could’ve you know, not raped.
In contrast, harm and/or risk reduction relates to the actions that the potential victim can utilize to lower their probability of victimization. It does not eradicate their vulnerability, but rather provides the tools and resources necessary to understand how to reduce one’s risk of being hurt. As RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network explains, “While you can never completely protect yourself from sexual assault, there are some things you can do to help reduce your risk of being assaulted.” They provide some tips here such as being aware of one’s surroundings or having a safety plan.
Let’s be more careful and knowledgeable in our uses of terms like victim, survivor, and thriver. Let’s not perpetuate our society’s warped belief that victims are weak, powerless, voiceless, and helpless. They’re absolutely not. But victims have been victimized by others who chose to inflict harm. Flirting with the idea that victims somehow could have prevented their victimization isn’t upholding agency; it’s co-opting the language of empowerment to do what our society knows how to do best: blame the victim.
Photo credit: Nurse Uncut