A lot of my work deals with victim status and reclaiming the label. I know, who wants to be a victim? Who wants to claim that label? No one. Not really. But that’s the point. People don’t choose to endure victimising experiences, especially traumatic ones. But when those things happen, whether by human hands or the hands of fate, people will go to great lengths to avoid calling themselves victims. That’s part of why survivor has become the trending identity category, especially for victims of sexual or intimate violence.
But victim has had a range of meanings over the centuries. For thousands of years it referred to a sacrificial animal until it was applied to Christ in the 16th century. Then it took on a slew of connotations rooted in Christian values – to be meek, weak, passive, and forgiving in the face of harm. These connotations became imperatives, tacit guidelines for how victims should behave. These connotations are one of the most prominent threads in the tapestry we call victimhood.
Enter neoliberalism. In the 1950s, the idea that unfettered free will was going to liberate markets and people across the world started getting traction. Individual agency and responsibility became idealised. Over the last many decades, victimhood has increasingly become an insult leveraged at people too weak, too lazy, to whatever to succeed under they tyranny of neoliberalism. They are seen as having a victim mentality.
Among the most important tensions in how we think of victims is whether it’s in reference to something that happens to someone (i.e. an accident, an assault) or whether it’s an internal state of mind. Increasingly, we view victimhood as an internal mind state that primes people for bad things to happen to them. We think of victimhood as a mentality. We castigate victims for being weak people who need to get their shit together. And we believe that people get attached to their suffering, lack the moral fibre to push past it, and therefore bring on further suffering to themselves.
But there was a moment when that’s not what victimhood was about. Mardorossian, a feminist theorist, writes that “it was precisely at the historical moment when women became active in fighting to dismantle the oppressive structures that subordinated them that the category of “victim” was reinfected and ideologically redefined to support the depoliticisation of gendered class relations.” In the 1970s, “being a victim did not mean being incapacitated and powerless. It means being a determined and angry (although not pathologically resentful) agent of change.” Victimhood in the 1970s was about naming a wrong and channeling anger at the wrong into political and social action for change.
I think it’s time to start reclaiming the victim label. It emphasises that a wrong has been done. In the case of sexual violence, it quietly but boldly points a finger at someone who caused harm. It demands that something be done to ameliorate the situation and repair it by way of justice. And it honours the powerlessness that is endemic to victimising experiences. What’s more, it resists cultural pressures to overcome victimhood on an individual basis, it undercuts what I call the survivor imperative, the individual push to become stronger than a violent victimising incident, to grow from the experience and highlight one’s agency and strength through suffering. Those ideas are counterproductive to healing and recovery. And they put responsibility where it doesn’t belong — on the shoulders of victims, rather than on rapists and the social realities that produce them
To be a victim is to know powerlessness, and to rail against it happening again. To be a victim is to cry for justice, based on the acknowledgement that harm comes to us from the outside, not from in our own heads. And victimhood offers a renewed way to band together for support and solidarity, to resist together. These days, thoughtful reclamation of the victim label is an act of resistance and subversion. It doesn’t have to negate survivor identity — for example, I identify as either, neither or both depending on the day and the context. In my writing, I write victim/survivor, since I see strategic opportunities in both.
The point is, the victim label is as complex as any word could be that’s been in use for thousands of years. It’s time to think about it carefully and realise that denying the label is profoundly depoliticising. I am a victim, and a proud one. It’s not all in my head. And I am fighting to stop the violence that hurt me and victimises others every day. I am a proud victim, and I am not alone.