Being sexually assaulted doesn’t always make you a ‘rape victim’

There isn’t one standard response to something like this


The current conversation goes like this: you’re sexually assaulted, you speak out about it, you’re labelled a “rape victim”.

Whether in a police file, a result of a media report, a trigger warning, it’s how we refer to everyone that’s been sexually assaulted – and it needs to change.

Essentially, being called a “rape victim” places me in a group with everyone else that’s ever been raped as if there’s only one outcome. In reality, there are millions of different ways to deal with sexual assault, because there are millions different situations in which sexual assault happens. No two experiences are the same.

It's not always about being hopeless

It’s not always about being hopeless

By definition, a victim is “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” A victim is “a person who is tricked or duped.” A victim is “a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment.”

For many people, this sums up their experience – but not everyone and not me. We’re fed this received notion of someone who has been sexually assaulted, of what they are supposed to be.

When talking about “victims,” or the idea we are “rape survivors” we assume someone who has been sexually assaulted must succumb to some sort of lasting harm. While undoubtedly the act of sexual assault is harmful – physically, mentally, both – in the moment, that’s not to say there is a prescribed level of post-traumatic stress as a result.

Frankly, not everyone is harmed in this way. It’s not always a struggle to “survive”. Friends of mine fit into this narrow “victim” category, yet they’ve risen above any long-term “harm”. Friends of mine have been labeled “rape survivors,” and feel it’s a feeble pat on the back for coping with the difficulties of rape.

They’ve graduated from college, they’re in the working world, walking down the street every day without feeling some sort of impending doom, or fear of another attack.

Just because some twisted person has disgustingly imposed non-consensual sex on them, it doesn’t mean they should succumb to an abyss of trauma and depression.

Sarah* was sexually assaulted last year. She said: “I don’t want to be thrown into a labeled group of people because one of my friends raped me, so I’ve chosen to keep quiet about the whole thing. I don’t deserve to be pitied because someone raped me – I just want to get on with my life.”

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It’s not always a struggle

Being a “victim” or “survivor” assumes a “fight” of injustice, which in itself presupposes a struggle against the iniquity that is rape. But it isn’t always a struggle – what about the “victims” who just get on with their life? Why do we forget the girls and guys who see it as a bump in the road, and walk right over it to their 9-5? What about my college classmate, a “victim”, who doesn’t hold back from coming for drinks, even though that’s the situation which led to her sexual assault?

The label “victims” assumes helplessness. The truth is, for so many people, it’s just another moment in their life. It’s an utterly horrible one, but not necessarily the defining one. There’s no need for helplessness, hopelessness or feeling passive as a “rape victim”.

In fact, so many girls, women and men who have been sexually assaulted have no problem talking about and living with their experiences. We campaign for a change in policing and education to stop it happening in the first place, because the act itself is horrible enough, not because it’s always a struggle to cope with after.

Shannon, who has been sexually assaulted multiple times, said: “When I think of a victim, I think of someone who wasn’t asking for it to happen. I think of a total out-of-the-blue situation where someone was very negatively affected. I think it now has a negative connotation.

“I think the idea of being a victim came first, it was attributed to women in sexual assault situations second, and then was negative to the female gender third.”

It’s about way more than talking about rape, it’s how we talk about it. The most appropriate way to refer to someone who has been sexually assaulted – is as someone who has been sexually assaulted. We’re not all the same.