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.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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