People told me not to call myself a 'victim' after my rape. Here's why I refused.

A man raped me seven years ago.

I was left traumatized and suicidal and with a complex linguistic decision: What should I call myself?

For a long time, I avoided using the terms rape "victim" or "survivor." I simply said, "I was raped" or "a man raped me." But the experience of being raped forced its way into my identity, not just my history.


It comes with the territory of writing publicly about my rape, of speaking openly about it. I am a woman; I am a writer; I am a rape ________.

Victim? Survivor?

I started where I always start: Google.

I typed "rape victim vs. survivor" into the search bar. After reading just a few articles, it became clear that the correct term — or at least the most search engine optimized term — for myself was "survivor."

Survivor is empowering and strong. It rolls off the tongue in a way that "victim" does not. My jaw relaxed, though I had not realized I was clenching it. I knew what to say. I had the words.

I didn't think to question those articles then, and in the years since, I've heard this particular message of empowerment repeated over and over again. It's a mantra of sorts: "We are not victims; we are survivors."

I've watched many who've experienced sexual violence articulate these words: many of the hundreds of women who spoke out against Larry Nassar; leaders in the #MeToo movement; sign-bearers at protests and at the Women's March.

Scrolling through news stories and watching YouTube videos on autoplay, I began to feel misrepresented.

Was I the only one who felt like "survivor" didn't accurately sum up my identity?

Beneath this question of terminology, there is an implication that we start out as victims, but we outgrow that label as we "triumph" and move past the immediate aftermath of the crime. Survivor implies having survived the recovery process.

Though the physical pain and rainbow of bruises did eventually fade, the impact of my rape never really did. I stopped doing a lot of things in the wake of the rape — traveling alone, going on runs outside, dating. Though eventually I was able to get my life back, I lost years to fear, to post-traumatic stress disorder, to hiding. Those years would've been different had I not been raped. I would be different had I not been raped.

For me, survivor sugarcoats the reality of rape.

Survivor tells an ultimately hopeful, inspiring, empowering story. Look at us, thriving despite violence. Survivor is easier for people to hear. It is more comfortable than victim. Victim reminds people of violent acts and brutal realities. Survivor makes them think of rousing music and impossible courage. Survivor is the story of sexual violence that the media, the public, wants to hear.

I don't know a single person that has experienced sexual violence and thinks they're better off for it. The act and aftermath of sexual violence is not oriented around the potential light at the end of the tunnel. 94% of rape victims have symptoms of PTSD, and 13% attempt suicide. Rape victims are up to 10 times more likely to abuse drugs. It's not all empowerment and #MeToo rallies and harrowing news stories with "happy" endings. It's not all inspiration.

My friend once told me "surviving rape made you brave and strong." But that's not true. I was brave and strong before somebody raped me. The rape made me afraid, made me cower on the gray-carpeted floor of my bedroom and avoid being touched, even by close friends and family, for years. I don't think I became stronger because of the rape. I think I simply got back to my baseline — brave and strong.

Conventional wisdom tells us to "get out of the victim mindset."

As if there were a stigma associated with the term "victim," and "survivor" seeks to evade it. Are victims of other crimes ashamed to have been victimized? Maybe. But there is a particular and particularly egregious stigma associated with sexual violence.

I refuse to feel ashamed of what was done to me. The shame of the act is not mine; it is on the one who perpetrated the crime. My rapist may never be punished, but he will always be guilty. The language I use to talk about sexual violence should place the spotlight on the fact that another person perpetrated a crime against me, and we do not call the victim of a robbery a "survivor."

I do not want to be the focus. I want the crime to be the focus. I want the criminal to be the focus.

When we hear the term victim, we think about the crime and acknowledge its perpetrator.

We know who these people are, though they are rarely imprisoned. My rapist had dark curly hair, a rough beard, and sharp fingernails.

When we hear the term survivor, the perpetrator is erased. Empowering victims, linguistically or otherwise, won't stop rape. There are survivors of a fire, a natural disaster, or a disease. Sexual violence is different. It is not an unstoppable pandemic. It is not a blameless illness. There is always somebody who bears the blame.

Though I prefer it, I avoid using the word "victim" when writing or speaking.

I use the word "survivor," the word the #MeToo movement wants me to use, because I want the movement to succeed. Common language is important to unification and a consistent message.

But when I'm alone with myself, I know my truth. Yes, I survived, but I am a victim of a heinous crime.  

Mostly, though, I wish I did not have to spend time worrying about verbiage. We need to get to a place where language can be more nuanced, more telling, and more personal. We need to be able to speak our truths however we want to articulate them, to fully own our stories and not just donate them to the cause.

This story originally appeared on The Lily, a subsidiary of The Washington Post, and is reprinted here with permission.

For John Shults and Joy Morrow-Nulton, the COVID-19 pandemic brought more than just health threats and lockdown woes. For the two 95-year-olds, it also held something remarkable—another chance at romance.

Both Shults and Morrow-Nulton had been married twice and widowed twice, but they were determined to find love again. They met in May of 2019, brought together by Morrow-Nulton's 69-year-old son, John Morrow.

"She was cute, I'll tell you that," Shultz told the New York Times of their first meeting. "And she was smart and she had a delightful sense of humor. And she smiled at me."

Shultz asked her to lunch a few more times before it became crystal clear to Morrow-Nulton that he was on a mission to date her.

Keep Reading Show less

For John Shults and Joy Morrow-Nulton, the COVID-19 pandemic brought more than just health threats and lockdown woes. For the two 95-year-olds, it also held something remarkable—another chance at romance.

Both Shults and Morrow-Nulton had been married twice and widowed twice, but they were determined to find love again. They met in May of 2019, brought together by Morrow-Nulton's 69-year-old son, John Morrow.

"She was cute, I'll tell you that," Shultz told the New York Times of their first meeting. "And she was smart and she had a delightful sense of humor. And she smiled at me."

Shultz asked her to lunch a few more times before it became crystal clear to Morrow-Nulton that he was on a mission to date her.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."