I identify as a survivor of sexual violence.
Just a few years ago, I would not have been able to say that out loud. I used to consistently doubt my memories and my feelings. I would doubt that what I had experienced even happened. I would doubt my anxiety, my emotions, or my mental health symptoms. I struggled to believe myself. I compared my experiences to others and doubted whether my experiences were “bad enough” to “count.” And I know I’m not the only one.
Why do we constantly accuse ourselves of lying or remembering things wrong or misinterpreting our own experiences?
Part of it might be societal gaslighting, when the people around you tell you that sexual violence could not have happened to you for any reason. Part of it might be internalized mental health stigma, when we convince ourselves that we are just “making excuses” rather than believing that we are actually experiencing real mental health problems as a result of a traumatic experience.
Because I grew up in a conservative area, many people around me did not understand why we would ever emphasize “how a person identifies” over some kind of supposedly objective measure or standard. When I was first allowed to say “I identify as a survivor of sexual violence,” it was life-changing. There was no judgment. There was no one telling me “That’s not the definition” or “That doesn’t count” or “I don’t understand what you mean.” I felt like I finally had permission to believe myself because no one else was doubting me.
I felt validated when I was told that how I identify is more important right now than somebody else's definition. And the more I think about that, it’s true. How is an arbitrary definition going to tell you more about your experiences than your own definition? How could someone else’s definition of a word better explain your experiences than your definition?
I want to clarify that I am not talking about a legal process here. The criminal justice system is built on the idea of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while the civil legal system is built on the idea of “more likely than not.” In some cases, these are achievable. But in most cases of sexual violence, it is not—because there is no weapon, there is no physical object, and there is often no paper trail. There is only you.
To be completely honest, I do not know the solution to that. What I do know is that you can get support without a court declaring that you have experienced sexual violence. You do not need to prove yourself to anyone. You are the evidence. Identifying is enough.
We need to socially and personally give ourselves, as well as each other, the space to communicate what words make us feel understood and what communities make us feel like we belong. Asking “Do you identify as…” instead of “Are you…” gives us the ability to tell other people where we belong or what kind of resources we need, even if many of these categories are difficult to strictly define.
Yes, definitions have their place in society in certain situations. However, we should always be thinking about purpose. Why is it important to use a particular definition at a certain time if it does not match the experiences it is trying to describe? Using the terms that people assign to themselves creates room for understanding and allows people to tell other people what kinds of resources we need. While some may argue that broadening definitions and welcoming self-identification will make life more confusing, I believe that this actually opens up conversations and creates room for compassion.
Words are simply tools, and the purpose of a tool can change. For example, I preferred the word “victim” over the word “survivor” for a while because I had not yet had the space to feel my pain, to acknowledge what I had gone through, and to begin to heal. So, I didn’t feel like I had survived already. I still felt like I was a victim who was continuously experiencing trauma, rather than a “survivor” who was finished experiencing trauma. I was angry that nobody saw that. And all of that is valid.
I now identify more with the term “survivor” because I have been learning more about myself and my experiences, and I feel a lot more ready to find community with other people who have experienced similar things. The fact that I identify with a different term now does not mean that either term or either version of me is invalid. It simply means that I required different tools to describe myself at different times, when I understood myself and my experiences in different ways.
As another example of the value of self-identification, I have experienced similar problems with definitions with regard to my race. I am Filipino, and I identify with that specific term the most because I do not feel that using the broader “Asian” encapsulates my identity well enough. Yes, the Philippines is in Asia. However, Filipino culture is deeply connected to Spain because the Philippines were colonized by them for three hundred years, so I connect with a lot of Hispanic experiences and communities as well.
To complicate things further, Filipinos were classified as Pacific Islanders for several years while I was younger, and I have always seen myself and my appearance represented more in Pacific Islanders than in other Asian communities. However, I still do identify and connect with Asian cultures because parts of Filipino culture are similar to other Asian cultures, likely due to the close geography and history tracing further back to pre-colonial times.
This complicated soup of history and identity challenges the limiting tick-boxes of a form’s question, “What is your race?” This is why I similarly prefer the simple change, “How do you identify?” It serves the purpose of the question much more effectively, giving people the chance to share a part of their identity without the pressure of wondering “Do I count?”
This is especially important for survivors of sexual violence because we already ask “Do I count?” far too much.
Every home-brewed investigation asks “Did it really happen?”
Every nosy, blame-filled question from people who are supposed to care asks “Did you resist enough for it to count as violence?”
Every intrusive thought and internal nugget of doubt asks “Does my experience count?”
From one survivor to another, if you think it happened, believe yourself. You are not making this up. Strictly adhering to someone else’s definition is not more important than communicating your experiences and receiving support that matches your needs. You saying, “I identify as a survivor of sexual violence,” means that you are a survivor of sexual violence. Nobody can take that away from you. Identifying is enough.