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Stop framing us as victims: Safely supporting survivors of sexual violence

<h5>The entrance to the Department of Public Safety.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The entrance to the Department of Public Safety.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Content warning: The following column contains references to sexual assault. If you or a friend have experienced sexual misconduct and are in need of assistance, Princeton has a number of resources that may be of use. You can also reach SHARE, Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education service at 609-258-3310.

“Even after time, the pain from sexual assault never goes away.” These words still echo in my head ever since a Princeton Public Safety officer first said them to me after I reported sexual assault. 

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To my surprise, after speaking with nearly every available resource for survivors of sexual assaults and domestic violence on campus, I found that Public Safety was the most validating and vocal when it comes to victim-centered resolutions. The officer’s awareness of the possibility of re-traumatization through processes like Title IX and filing criminal complaints, as well as his understanding that the pain never totally disappears, imbued me with a sense of respect and agency I didn’t always experience from my peers and others I confided in. In fact, despite their use of the term ‘victim’ for legal purposes, Public Safety’s approach left me feeling the most like an empowered survivor rather than the weak victim I felt like throughout the entire process.

Don’t get me wrong: the support I had received from my peers was incredible. When I first shared my experiences of sexual violence with a few trusted friends, an extensive network of support emerged almost immediately. My friends pointed me to peers who had experience with Title IX in the past, delayed school work to help me look through evidence, accompanied me to hours of meetings, and sat with me through nights that were hard to spend alone. Without this resounding support system and the generosity of my peers, I would not have stayed so strong through such a difficult process.

However, at the same time, I have come to realize that our campus community’s default approach to supporting survivors of sexual violence at Princeton, in which those who experience sexual violence are seen as victims, is inherently flawed. By labeling peers who are survivors of sexual violence as victims, we feed into a false narrative where strong, capable, and brave individuals who unfortunately have experienced sexual violence are defined by that experience. Through this, survivors are completely deprived of their agency and choice in a process that is often re-traumatizing. 

It’s alienating to be considered a victim. In my case, it was not until after I finally reported the assault to Public Safety and they filed a report using the word that I considered myself a victim of sexual violence. Before then, I had resisted the term ‘victim’ entirely. But I quickly found that in criminal cases, the term victim holds a far different weight than it does socially. Legally, a victim is seen as someone who has not only suffered harm at the hands of a perpetrator, but also as an active and independent participant in criminal cases. There’s a sense of agency and autonomy associated with being a victim of sexual assault. 

Socially at Princeton, however, to be labeled a victim comes with a sense of pity that made me feel weak, naïve, and foolish in a way that fundamentally conflicted with the strong and empowered person that I believe myself to be. I was ashamed to be considered a victim. I started to feel as though my friends only supported me because they felt sorry for me, and came to withdraw from the support that was so graciously offered in the moments I needed it most. In this way, the victim narrative can disincentivize the courageous act of speaking up by stigmatizing the experience of sexual violence as something weak and shameful.

Sometimes I think that I would have come forward sooner had there not been a stigma around being the ‘victim’. We regularly see that when women come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct they are not taken seriously. After all, it was only two years ago when Tara Reade was antagonized for accusing now-President Joe Biden of misconduct. 

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In the present social and political climate, coming forward with sexual assault allegations can feel more like a sign of weakness and helplessness than one of strength and power. Thus, reinforcing a victim narrative can be counterproductive as it discourages people who have experienced sexual violence from speaking up.

By employing (and really believing in) the term ‘survivor,’ we can allow those who have experienced the pain and trauma of sexual violence to become more empowered without defining them by such experiences. While victims are often seen as passive and fragile, survivors are strong and capable. Although the pain always stays for all victims of sexual assault, survivors have the power to take control of their future and hold perpetrators accountable following incidents of sexual violence.

It is important to note that promoting survivorship over victimhood is about more than simply changing the use of a word. Rather, it’s about altering the entire paradigm we use to think about and treat individuals who have experienced sexual violence. When well-meaning friends and acquaintances jumped in to help with my case, decisions were made entirely without my consent. For example, peers without the full details of my situation took steps to get my assailant removed from a campus organization, without alerting me to their plans ahead of time, or asking for my opinion. Their actions, though well intentioned, escalated the threat of retaliation from my perpetrator and put me at greater risk of harm. Despite their intentions, it was clear that some of my peers saw me as a victim in need of help and pity without actually listening to what I wanted and needed. Looking back on the decisions made on my behalf without my consultation, the parallels between the incidents of assault and the processes of justice were unmistakable: in both cases, decisions were made for me without my permission and seriously threatened my safety and well-being.

Many of the grand acts of support I received from peers came from the best of intentions, but without clear communication with and consent from the survivor, decisions made by overly supportive peers can be invalidating, or worse, dangerous. By choosing to confront the perpetrator about their actions, remove them from a group, or ‘cancel’ them socially without consulting with the survivor, one infringes on the very freedom of choice and control that the survivor was deprived of in the first place during those incidents of sexual violence. Even worse, these actions can also put the survivor at heightened risk of retaliation, whether physical, social, or legal. Therefore, in supporting peers who have experienced sexual violence, approaching all instances of sexual violence from a survivor-centered perspective can serve as a means to end the harmful victim narrative which reinforces passivity and the victim’s inability to control their own future.

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I have experienced both the enduring pain of sexual violence and the harmful consequences of others seeking to make decisions without my informed consent. These experiences have shown me that the most effective way to overturn the reductive, harmful victim narrative is by restoring the power of choice to survivors. Acting without the survivor’s full consent and knowledge can ultimately cause more harm than good, even if well-intentioned.

While that Public Safety officer was indeed correct in saying the pain of sexual violence may never fully go away, the right kind of support and care from loved ones can make the process a heck of a lot easier, and that can be enough.

Hannah Reynolds is a senior in the anthropology department from the Finger Lakes in Upstate N.Y. She can be reached at hannahr@princeton.edu

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