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Talking About Sexual Harm

By Julie Shackford-Bradley 

Last week, the RJ Center published an op-ed giving a brief explanation of how restorative processes can work in response to sexual misconduct. One comment I received informally about the op-ed addressed the use of the word “survivor” to refer to people who had experienced sexual harm:

Some people don’t want to be known as a survivor, or even a victim. In their view, something happened to them, that’s all. They don’t want a label applied.

This is so true, and to go further, some have argued that using the term survivor forces a kind of “forced heroism” on people who have been harmed by sexual assault. As Jezebel puts it, the motivation to shift from victim to survivor:

was, in its earliest usage, a radical intervention into historical narratives of victimhood, sexual violence, and gender. To be a survivor rather than a victim of sexual assault was to claim an iteration of power post-assault—to refuse the passiveness, as well as the physical and emotional vulnerability that’s semantically bound to victimhood.

However, the overuse of the word survivor may have “undermined its radicalism,” stripping it down to a “a rhetoric of almost mandatory heroism.”

Affirming this view, Anonymous writes:

I prefer the word “victim” because it places the focus back where it belongs: on the fucking rapist who turned me into a victim by raping me. I had no choice in that, and I don’t have much choice about how I respond to it either.

And yet… not using the word survivor, or using the phrase victim/survivor or survivor/victim as some do, also alienates people who have settled on and normalized this term. At UC Berkeley, after much agitation, “survivor” is the term people agreed on. The same is the case for national organizations like RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) which informs media folks that:

We often use “survivor” to refer to someone who has gone through the recovery process, or when discussing the short- or long-term effects of sexual violence. Some people identify as a victim, while others prefer the term survivor. The best way to be respectful is to ask for their preference.

RAINN also addresses the question of language used to describe various kinds of sexual harm, including Sexual Assault, Rape or Sexual Violence. Their strategy is to use a legal term if discussing a criminal case. Otherwise, they use the term “sexual violence” as an all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse.

At UC Berkeley, it’s normative to use the phrase SVSH or Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment as an “all-encompassing term” for a variety of actions, and harms. The phrase “sexual misconduct” is also widely used in educational settings.

But with increased awareness about what’s happening out there, people are growing more concerned about the inadequacy of language to express the range of experiences, emotions and truths of sexual harm.

On the one hand, people use terms like “sexual violence, “sexual assault” and “sexual misconduct” as all encompassing so as not to minimize the impacts of people’s experiences of harm. To counter the discourse where, If a person were “just groped” for example, well, why make such a big deal of it? Doesn’t it happen all the time? This is minimizing, and it disregards the cumulative impacts of the groping and other behaviors within a patriarchal context in which women’s bodies are objectified.

On the other hand, in order to emphasize the wide-spread and general nature of sexual harm, we risk lumping together the worst, felony-level behavior with behavior that is offensive. Cottle of The Atlantic writes:

it’s important to avoid (through frustration or disgust, exhaustion or confusion) sweeping every bad act and actor into the same mushy heap. That kind of sloppiness breeds excess and backlash. …  Both genders need to find a way to address some of these qualitative distinctions without sounding like anyone is being let off the hook.

As she notes, when people Matt Damon talk about a “spectrum of gravity” of cases, the response is that “all forms of sexual misconduct ‘hurt.’” So how can we treat those who have engaged in sexual harm fairly, with proportionate responses, while also recognizing that the impacts of sexual harm are deeply traumatizing and cumulative, and extend beyond the individual to entire demographics?

More people are turning to RJ for answers, as this twitter exchange shows:

Restorative justice moves away from a paradigm of adversarial investigation of what happened, with two competing versions of reality offered by complainant and defendant

In other words, laws, policies, and labels can’t do justice to the ways in which a person experiences harm or impact. More language and more space needs to be available for people to talk about how they have experienced harm and what they need going forward.

RJ language, while clumsy and open-ended, can help us navigate the realm of sexual harm. The person harmed is just that, not necessarily a victim or survivor. The person who has done harm is just that, not a “respondent” or “responsible party” (which feels like it minimizes harm done) or even a “perpetrator” or “offender,” (labels that reduce a person to a single identity). Sexual harm is the term for “what happened,” and people are free to explain what that means in their own terms. This language is virtually impossible to use religiously throughout an op-ed, blog post or article. But the benefit, when used throughout a restorative process, is that it aims to be as true to peoples’ experiences as possible.

Julie Shackford-Bradley is the Co-Founder and current Director of the Restorative Justice Center.

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