Survivor: Part 2

***In this post, I am going to probably make most of you uncomfortable, please know that I don’t want your discomfort to cause you harm. I just want you to understand, and sometimes understanding comes by wading through, and tuning in to, the discomfort. ***

Survivor: Part 2

Now, I will be the first to admit that I use this word “survivor” myself. I give the okay to others to label me that way as well. I use it because I haven’t found another word or phrase that expresses what I want it to, and it’s the closest thing I know for now.

However, I honestly find the use of this word problematic and not just because it makes me uncomfortable. Survivor seems to be a term that is limited to crisis and immediately post-crisis. The problem with this is that survivorship is a lifelong title, we don’t stop being survivors just because we aren’t actively in crisis, being trafficked or exploited, or are one year post last exploitation event. We don’t stop having unique needs just because we are “stable” and “thriving.” Our bodies carry within them the weight of the trauma in many ways, for our entire lives. Don’t get what I am saying twisted here, we DO heal and recover. In many cases we do go on to live amazing lives, AND, we carry the impact of the abuse and exploitation with us.

Labeling someone as a survivor is limiting. It boxes us into being survivors only. And most of the time, when organizations and agencies especially are referring to a survivor, they are referring to someone who is no longer experiencing victimization or participating in activities that might lead to further harm. Someone who has left the exploitive or trafficking situation, is a survivor. That’s how we are portrayed.

The problem is that its not that simple.

I was always a survivor. Even while I was experiencing victimization, I was a survivor. I have always been and will always be, more than a survivor. The people I know who didn’t make it out alive, they were survivors too. The people I know who can’t leave, and those who keep going back for whatever reason, they are survivors too.

Surviving is what I did, it took an extreme amount of resilience, resourcefulness, and persistence. To be completely honest, it takes a lot to keep going too. I am more than a survivor though.

If you use the word survivor, I won’t judge you for it. As I mentioned already, I use this one myself. I think it is critical that we are mindful of the words that we use and how we use them. It is critical for us to recognize that the way we talk about survivors, and how we frame this, has weight and meaning. If we don’t recognize and acknowledge that sometimes we don’t have the right words, or that perhaps the words we use are harmful or limiting, we are missing an opportunity to relate and build trusting relationships.

For me the biggest issue I have with this label is that for it to matter to anybody, for services to be available or even responsive to the needs that I might have as a survivor, I must continue to be in trauma or recent trauma mode. That doesn’t serve me well, and it essentially shows a significant lack of understanding regarding the impact that trafficking and exploitation have on a person. For example: If we know that most folks who have experienced trafficking and exploitation aren’t going to identify that as their experience initially and may struggle to ever name it as it is. If we know that the impact of trafficking and exploitation is life long, and for many people they can’t disclose to anyone for years and years. Why would we limit eligibility for services to a window that doesn’t come anywhere near the window for disclosure, and why would we limit our provision of all services in a trauma responsive way only to those who disclose or are in active victimization?

From my perspective, it does a disservice to everyone if we don’t address this and at least wrestle with the barriers that are created by the words we use. If we could start practicing tuning in and reflecting on what we’re doing, we would probably do a lot of things differently.

Here’s what I am going to ask you to start doing. Start listening to the words and phrases you use. Take note of anything that catches your attention. Then take a few moments at the end of your day to reflect:

What does my industry mean by that phrase or word? What changes when I use words that mean what I mean instead of that word or phrase? What changes for everyone else when I do that?
When I use this word or phrase what are the implications for me, for my coworkers and community partners, and for the survivors I interact with?
When I use this word or phrase what changes in how I relate to people?
When I use this word or phrase what changes in how I serve people if I used something different?