The Truth Shall Make You
VICTIM OR SURVIVOR ? WHY WORDS MATTER
On December 22 last year, listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme heard the presenter, John Humphrys, take to task a man who had endured child sexual abuse: his ‘offence’ was to call himself a survivor.
I have some difficulty with the word survivor and I think perhaps others do as well. But anyway, let’s call them victims can we? Can we agree on the word victims at any rate ?
As the heated public controversy over historic child sexual abuse has become ever more politicised (note the small ‘p) and polarised, the use of the word “survivor” has become a lightning rod for the anxiety of journalists and commentators uneasy about the ever-growing list of official investigations.
To some, it wrongly appropriates a term previously most associated with victims of the Holocaust. For others, such as the barrister and vocal critic of current child abuse investigations, Barbara Hewson, it exemplifies what she denounces as “the ideology of victimisation”. Writing in Spiked (online) Magazine in December 2013, Ms Hewson complained:
Victims/survivors are praised for their courage, and enjoined to recover. The language of recovery is permeated by the doctrinaire religiosity of the 12-step movement, pioneered by the founders of AA in the US. This may explain why some victim-advocacy groups can sound cult-like, with their own jargon (‘grooming’, ‘trafficking’, ‘mind control’) and their disdain for non-believers.
Ms. Hewson (and those like her) attack from an entrenched position. Historic abuse is – in their view – either a chimera or a dangerous obsession with what Ms Hewson has termed “stale claims”. And the increasing self-identification of victims as “survivors” seems to these critics to embody all that is wrong about a “moral panic” over child sexual abuse. (Ms. Hewson has argued that the age of consent should be reduced to 13).
This weekend, in a small airless room in London’s Inner Temple, I heard the clearest and most compelling enunciation of why Ms. Hewson and Mr. Humphrys have got it wrong. And why the words we use matter a very great deal.
For two days the UK Child Sexual Abuse People’s Tribunal heard testimony from those who had endured rape and molestation in childhood. UKCSAPT is a unique volunteer-based attempt to examine cases of institutional child sex abuse. It runs in parallel (and in some contrast) to the official enquiry led by Justice Lowell Goddard: it has none of that body’s inquisitorial powers, nor its vast budget. But it is nonetheless carefully organised on sound legal principles and has the benefit of expert advice from a reputable firm of solicitors. Its panel of judges include a former UN War Crimes prosecutor and a highly experienced clinical psychologist specialising in child protection. Their findings will, in time, be presented to the Home Secretary.
I was privileged to be asked to film the Tribunal’s proceedings, to make a record for future understanding, of the testimony given by its witnesses. On Saturday afternoon, one of them explained why the word “survivor” matters.
The witness – like all those giving evidence she was guaranteed anonymity – endured many years of sexual abuse as a child. In time, one of her abusers was convicted for at least of the offences he inflicted on her: she was therefore unquestionably victimised. But she told the judges that she is not a “victim”. These are her words.
A victim is someone who won’t let go [of the abuse]. A victim is someone who is still living through it. Survivors are people that fight back and who won’t let the past ruin their future. We have to be able to distinguish between the two.
A lot of people want to be known as victims. But most want to be known as survivors.
This quiet articulation, from a quietly determined middle-aged woman, puts the lie to the hostile denunciation of survivors as members of a self-pitying “cult”. The reality is almost exactly the opposite: by using the word “survivor” they are – very deliberately – renouncing self-pity. To criticise them for this is – at best – lazy; at worst it is ill-motivated.
I was asked to film the Tribunal because I have a long history (as a journalist) of investigating organised child sexual abuse. As I packed up the camera, lights and microphones it dawned on me that the witness’ statement about the importance of choosing the right word to describe those had suffered sexual abuse in childhood has a parallel in the labels used to refer to the adults who commit these offences.
For (too many) years – decades – the visual record made by abusers of their offences was called “child porn”. It was a phrase guaranteed to minimise the brutal truth: “porn” is perceived as naughty or titillating, rather than cruel and vicious, and it was no coincidence that for far too long there was no law prohibiting the possession of what is no ore and no less than a visual record of child sexual abuse. When I made a film about the problem in 1987, followed by a book in 1990, I insisted that it be called Child Pornography – never porn. Today, simple possession is illegal and the material itself is (rightly) termed Indecent Images of Children. Words matter. They have power.
They matter, too, in the way we use them to describe offenders. Too often, too many of my colleagues (and some police) lazily label all those who abuse children as “paedophiles”. But paedophilia is a precise term: it defines those who have a sexual interest in pre-pubescent boys or girls. Those with a sexual preference for post-pubescent adolescents are actually hebephiles. Given that both fixations, if acted on, are illegal why does this distinction matter ? Because the methods for investigating and then (with luck) treating the offenders differ radically between the two. Incorrect labelling can hinder both prosecution and rehabilitation. Words matter.
Exactly this same importance applies to the word used to describe those who have endured child sexual abuse. We ignore or dismiss it at both our peril. And theirs.