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Victim Burden: Time To Reclaim The Word

The term “victim” carries a burden of proof due to the negative word associations attached to it.   At a time where many across the country are making hard sacrifices exercising social distancing and enforced self-quarantine amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, victims across the country are suffering from its effects. Power dynamics make it difficult to find […]

The term “victim” carries a burden of proof due to the negative word associations attached to it.  

At a time where many across the country are making hard sacrifices exercising social distancing and enforced self-quarantine amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, victims across the country are suffering from its effects.

Power dynamics make it difficult to find any kind of safety in isolation.

I have spent the last decade serving as an advocate for more than 400 survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking. In helping these survivors navigate criminal justice systems and social services domains, it is common to hear terms assigned to them such as “uncooperative,” “non-compliant,” “accuser,” “emotional,” “difficult to serve,” and “unreliable.”  

These negative judgments reinforce biases in public representatives and those professionals serving victims. While these biases may be implicit, they impact the creation of policies and procedures that place additional burdens on victims to prove their believability. 

When interpreting for a client applying for a protective order, I watched her recoil at the response after telling her story.

The blatant threat her abuser texted her was examined through a cultural lens. The administrator asked if the word “threat” was a commonly used phrase where she “came from.”

After college, I had internalized rejection of the term “victim,” even in a casual use, implying weakness, lack of motivation and personal accountability. 

“Stop playing the victim,” is a phrase I’ve heard throughout my life. Only in my profession as a victim’s advocate did I learn how problematic it was. 

These implications suggest that persons experiencing a trauma have personal responsibility for the event as well as the aftermath. This is especially noticeable in the experiences of victims from underrepresented and marginalized communities. 

You need to watch only a few episodes of  the TV series, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” to see how opposing counsels often revictimize victims on the stand. Asking questions like “What were you wearing?” or “Did you have anything to drink?” only to imply guilt and undermine their integrity.

Which is why roles like detective Olivia Benson’s, played by Mariska Hargitay, are so vital in shifting the cultural perception. Her unyielding advocacy and empathy for victims, both on and off screen, have moved the needle on the cultural narrative. 

A recent study assessing the phenomena of victim derogation suggests that empathy is strongly correlated to a reduction in the likelihood of victim blaming. The historical, and arguably theological, roots of this phenomena are deep.

As labeling theory suggests, a victim’s behavior may in fact be influenced by the negative use and associations of the term.

Statistics show very few victims have falsely reported, yet somehow that fact is lost on the characterization of many victims. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center the prevalence of false reporting on sexual assault is between 2% and 10%. For context those percentages are for the cases that actually get reported.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, RAINN, one of the largest anti-sexual violence organizations in the nation, documents  that only 1 out of 4 sexual assault cases is reported. Even fewer than that go to trial and even less result in a conviction.

In 2018, continuing a rising trend of previous years, there were 3.3 Million cases of reported violent crimes in the U.S., dramatically increased by 604,000 from 2015.

The blame and stigma for victims is why many do not report a traumatic experience. It’s often why many victims, including men, circumvent identifying with the term all together.

The term victim is something many are socially averse to, but being a victim from a marginalized or underrepresented community carries unique additional barriers and burdens to resolve. 

This is especially true now when rhetoric surrounding immigrant, refugee, and multicultural communities is negative. Many underrepresented victims fear reporting to law enforcement and engaging with service providers. They are most at risk of having life altering negative consequences due to misunderstandings from language and cultural barriers. 

Victims are emotional. Some victims can be uncooperative. But damning them is another assault. It is time to reclaim the word victim and strip it of any contempt. 

There is more power in words than many acknowledge. In my professional experience I have learned not to work in absolutes. 

The impacts of the words associated with the term ‘victim’ have rippling consequences on the perceived believability of their experience.

A conscious and collective effort to make space for victims to be victims, in all of its expressions, can open doors for those who most rely on it. 

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