Don't Call Me Strong

While it is not my primary identity, it will always be a part of who I am. Frequently, the media praises victims for "not allowing themselves to be called a victim." As if it were degrading and demeaning words along the lines of "slut."
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I am a victim. No shame there; it's true. A victim is someone harmed, injured or destroyed as a result of a crime. That fits for me, and to claim otherwise would negate my experience and deny the damage of the sexual abuse I endured for years as a child

Victim. While it is not my primary identity, it will always be a part of who I am. "Victim" is a heavy word, one with unnecessarily negative connotations. Frequently, the media praises victims for "not allowing themselves to be called a victim." As if it were one of those degrading and demeaning words along the lines of "slut." Who would want to be called that or self-identify that way?

That trend bothers me. Yes, I am a survivor, but completely ignoring my victimhood minimizes the damage and pain that came about as a result of my perpetrator's crimes. There is no way to make what he did OK. "Victim" is a reminder that he wasn't just a good guy who made a mistake. He was a depraved criminal who sexually abused a little girl. I was that girl. I was his victim.

It is easier for society to look at strength rather than the cause of the brokenness. Rape. Incest. Sexual molestation. Sanitizing the impact by almost exclusively calling victims "survivors"makes it easy to ignore the pervasiveness, insidiousness and life-ruining (and, on a larger scale, society-ruining) impact of these disturbing crimes.

It is OK to be a victim. It also is good to heal, but oftentimes focusing on strength can make the healing process more difficult.

Here are ways it was unhelpful for me:

1. Calls for strength took away the permission I had given myself to be messy and broken. Being the victim of a crime, or other trauma, can be overwhelmingly devastating. It was important for me to have space to grieve the loss of my childhood.

2. Calls for strength made me feel defective. It was awful to realize the extent of the abuse that had happened to me as a child. Hearing about how strong I was (or had the potential to be) caused me to feel ashamed and embarrassed about the level of grief I was experiencing.

3. Calls for strength tempted me to put my mask back on. I had already lived as an impostor for most of my life, putting my pain in a vault and maintaining a secret that I was keeping from even myself. I'm awesome at wearing the "It's OK" mask. My cover story was "everything is fine." I did not want to have to live that way anymore. Calls for strength sounded like, "You should hide your feelings. Go numb. Don't be a blubbering mess."

4. Calls for strength created a sense that I was imposing on other people. Sometimes, I wondered if people were telling me I was strong or that I could be strong to comfort and reassure themselves. A face of strength can shield others from the depth of depravity and horror of the crime or traumatic event. I lived my whole childhood protecting my perpetrator. It feels natural to subjugate my needs for others. "Be strong" tells me, "This is inconvenient for you. Let me shield you from it by pretending I'm doing well."

5. Calls for strength felt controlling. In facing my trauma, I gained a lot of insight and awareness about my perpetrator's manipulation tactics. He told me how to feel, how to react, what was OK and what wasn't OK. While "You're strong" is meant as encouragement, I experienced it as an attempt at control. I heard, "strong is the right way to feel. Feel that." Receiving advice and feedback that was so contrary to my internal experience, felt -- in a word -- icky.

6. For male victims, calls for strength perpetuate stereotypes. In our society, experiencing emotions other than anger is often viewed as weak, unmanly and undesirable. Men also need space to experience pain and sadness and space to grieve the loss of whatever their negative experience has robbed them of.

What is helpful? I'll take a look at that next time.

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.

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