Understanding labels and terminology in our communications

significance of language

The language we use to describe something, or someone, is deeply significant. Organisations often attach labels to individuals to categorise them into where they ‘fit’ into our systems.

Generally, when someone has experienced a crime, they are referred to as a ‘victim of crime’.

Because sexual harm is about power and control, the word ‘victim’ should be considered carefully in communications because it can be perceived by some as portraying an individual as having little power or being in some way ‘weak’. The possibility of being perceived as ‘weak’ may make an individual feel shame and negatively impact on their self-esteem.

The word ‘victim’ may also be perceived by some as defining a person by the crime that they have experienced (e.g. ‘rape victim’). Overall, there is a difference in being ‘the victim of a crime’ or ‘the victim of rape’ and ‘being a victim’.

the word 'survivor'

The word ‘survivor’ is often used instead to describe those with lived experience of sexual harm. For some individuals the term ‘survivor’ is an empowering one and a reality because they have quite literally survived their experience. For others the word ‘survivor’ is associated with overcoming an obstacle and by doing so becoming stronger in some way. This can place a huge amount of pressure on an individual who has experienced trauma to ‘recover’ from their experience and transform into something else. Some individuals with lived experience of sexual harm can find the pressure to be a survivor / act like a survivor every day unrealistic.

When considering ‘victims’ and ‘survivors’ it is also useful to reflect upon those who do not ‘survive’ sexual harm, particularly those lost to suicide.

Understanding how words may be perceived

The phrase ‘cope and recover from crime’ is one that is well used by many organisations and is referenced in the national Victim’s Strategy. The phrase ‘to cope’ in the context of a traumatic experience/series of experiences/years of experiences, can place a responsibility on an individual to ‘get by’ which can be profoundly challenging if they do not have access to the type of specialist help and support that they may need. An individual who has experienced sexual harm may also feel that they may not ever ‘recover’ as they may never return to the version of themselves that existed before their experience.

This is not to say that these terms should never be used (and you will need to adhere to your organisation’s own preferred terminology in specific circumstances), but when using them when talking about sexual harm it is important to understand how they may be perceived, how they might resonate (or not) with individuals, and how they may make individuals feel. Where possible we refer to individuals within our own communications as having ‘lived experience of sexual harm’ or as ‘individuals who have experienced sexual harm or sexual offences’.

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