identify as a survivor of sexual violence.
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
to others and
whether my experiences were “bad enough” to “count.”
And I know I’m not the only one.
do we constantly accuse ourselves of lying or remembering things
wrong or misinterpreting our own experiences?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?”
is especially important for survivors of sexual violence because we
already ask “Do I count?” far too much.
home-brewed investigation asks “Did it really happen?”
nosy, blame-filled question from people who are supposed to care asks
“Did you resist enough for it to count as violence?”
intrusive thought and internal nugget of doubt asks “Does my
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.
This commentary is also posted on LA Progressive