Fill in the Blank
Earlier this year, Parul Sehgal wrote an essay examining “compulsory survivorship”—the tendency to label everyone who has had an abusive or unwanted sexual experience as a survivor. This is usually considered a direct response to casting these individuals as victims, which some find to be not representative of the strength and courage that it takes to heal from an unwanted or abusive experience. Her writing raises serious questions about how we identify, label, and ultimately perceive individuals who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences—whether that be others, or ourselves.
I thought about how this made me feel. In recent years, I’ve made this issue more important to me, and have had opportunities to discuss my own experiences, giving me the chance to identify with what has happened to me. Before I introduce myself, I almost always hesitate.
I haven’t always felt like a survivor. There are days when I still struggle, and wonder if I’m worthy of the label. I don’t feel like I could be marooned on an island with twenty other strangers and a camera crew. I don’t feel like I survived and fought back against some great adversary. But there are other days when I don’t feel like a victim either, days when my experience doesn’t cross my mind or worry me at all. The more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if I publicly discuss my experience and identify as a survivor or victim, those closest to me don’t think of me as either, usually. More often, I’m a son, brother, student, colleague, or friend.
1in6’s Communications & Professional Relations Director, Peter Pollard, has written before about how word choice can have a real impact. 1in6 generally avoids choosing labeling words like victim, perpetrator, and survivor, from a commitment to each individual person’s opportunity to define their experience for themselves. “Person-first language” e.g. “a man who was abused,” uses descriptions based on experience rather than labels. While it may not always be the most snappy, emotionally-charged, or recognizable, person-first does emphasize who we want to help—any person who wants to live a healthier, happier life.
1in6 helped me realize that in a given moment, I don’t necessarily need to identify with any of these terms, or any others. As the 1in6 website notes, “one of the most liberating aspects of healing from unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences is learning that the traumatic childhood experience is something that happened to you, not an identity, not who you are.”
Still, many choose to embrace the identity of “victim” or “survivor” as they move through the process of understanding the power of their experience. Those labels can be empowering. They may feel like a badge that’s helped shape who you’ve become or simply accurately describe your current state. Reclaiming the right to make that choice is part of healing.
As Sehgal writes, “In Japanese, the word “trauma” is expressed with a combination of two characters: ‘outside’ and ‘injury.’ Trauma is a visible wound — suffering we can see — but it is also suffering made public.”
However, it’s interesting to note that stigma, one of the biggest challenges men particularly and often face when dealing with unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences, comes from the Greek word for “a visible brand to mark disgrace.” Perhaps it is not the trauma itself that causes us all of the pain we experience; maybe some pain comes from the labels we mark ourselves with in attempts to fit into molds or appear a certain way.
Now when I introduce myself, I don’t treat the words like a brand or a tattoo, etched into me forever, for all to see. I’ve begun thinking of them like a name tag that says, “Hi, I’m _______.” That way, I can change the sticker whenever I need.
Landry Ayres is a blogger and intern for 1in6. Raised in north Texas, he is currently a graduate student at George Mason University working toward his M.A. in Health Communication. His research focuses on resources for men who have unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood, the HIV/AIDS rhetoric of evangelical organizations, performance, and public speaking education. He is also a coach of the George Mason Forensics Team, and a public speaking instructor at a variety of institutes across the nation.
Read more on the Joyful Heart Foundation blog