I don’t know if I’m a ‘survivor’. To be honest, I’m still confused about what’s considered sexual assault and what’s just poor communication. I have had a lot of blurry sexual experiences, though, with too much alcohol or uncertainty involved for me to feel capable of ending the situations. But I used to always blame myself for these situations – after all, I’m the one who chose to drink that much, I’m the one who led him on, I’m the one who said it was okay for him to walk me home. While this sounds like victim blaming, it was more empowering for me to think that I could have made different decisions. It felt better knowing that I could have avoided these situations rather than feeling that there was nothing I did to end up there – and that if a similar scenario happened again then there’s nothing I could change to prevent it.
My perception of these experiences has only started to shift over the past year with the changing conversation surrounding sexual assault on campus. Statistics like “1 in 5 women have experienced sexual assault” tell me that it’s more likely than not those experiences weren’t consensual. But I’m not sure that I want to be a ‘survivor’.
I can understand that for some of those who identify as survivors there is power in these statistics; they prove that they’re not alone, that it’s not their fault, that this is the result of a larger, systemic problem of how we discuss consent. But for me, the constant statistics and messaging of just how likely I am to be sexually assaulted is disempowering. It feels like sexual assault is likely to be my fate, if it isn’t already. And that terrifies me. It is the reason I feel disempowered in those blurry situations – if I don’t try to put a stop to the situation then there’s no chance I’ll be ignored, and therefore I won’t become a ‘survivor’, instead it’ll just be another regrettable decision in the morning. But on the other hand, if I am already a ‘survivor’, does that mean I’m not likely to be assaulted in future, because I’m already a statistic?
The problem with assault statistics is that they remove agency, which is the definition of disempowering someone.
But that’s not the point of the movement to end sexual assault on campus. The point is to tell perpetrators that their behaviour won’t be tolerated, not to tell women that regardless of their actions or inactions on a certain night the statistics say their victimhood is likely.
I think it is important that we remain aware of the very real threat of sexual assault on campus and continue to campaign to change the culture that enables perpetrators to not only abuse women but get away with it. But I also think we need to consider the impact the messaging we use is having on survivors or potential survivors. Advocacy campaigns should not further victimise the people they’re advocating for, they should empower them so that when the time comes for it, they know they’re in charge.