Change the Words, Change the Picture

As I gaze out this window and try to find words to describe what I see, I can choose between two words. I see either a hill or a mountain. Choosing which word to describe what I see is important for there is a great distinction between a mountain and a hill. The words we use matter. I want to propose a shift in some of the words we use when looking at sex abuse so that we can create a different possibility.

  • Victim or survivor - Typically when we refer to someone who has experienced sexual trauma, we use the word survivor. They haven't survived it - yet. They got through it. With much collateral damage done to their sense of self, and their view of the world. The person is first a victim, and does not become a survivor, until they have done the difficult work of overcoming the impact of the trauma. When we tell someone they have "survived" before they have done the hard work necessary, we leave no room for healing. A victim can begin to put responsibility where it lies and see the need and possibility for restoration.

  • Story or journey - Story speaks to identity. Journey speaks to movement through. When a victim "tells her story", it conveys a picture that has an ending. It reinforces the false identity created through trauma. The story of sex abuse isn't over until you have journeyed through the impact. Everyone of us is much more than what happened to us. We all can journey through events, and use events as a process for growth. If we shift from the word story to journey, we denote process, hope and possibility.

  • Public health issue or human rights issue - In order to create awareness and find a framework in which to engage people, the prevention world has called sex abuse a "pubic health" issue. The use of that framework lulls people into a sense of who ever has this problem can get a quick fix. Actually the presence of sex abuse is a human rights issue. It is a human right to live in safety without fear of sexual violence. It is a human right to have the possibility of living up to ones full potential. Perhaps that is the framework we need to utilize.

  • Advocate or Activist - An advocate has your back. An advocate speaks up for you, perhaps listens to you and offers help. An activist takes action. The word denotes radical and active actions on an issue to promote change. An activist is about doing something; it has a sense of urgency and focus. An activist is empowered to promote the cultural change we need that will end sex abuse.

  • Emotional Health or Mental Health - I first heard this distinction in an ACES blog post written by Penny Payton. I live in a world of mental health diagnosis. The system requires an official label to both direct the treatment approach and provide the dollars necessary to give that service. I believe that many, (not all) mental health issues are actually issues of emotions. The things we tell ourselves and the behaviors are designed to help us deny or tame emotions. With the shifting of one word we might reduce stigma and validate the freedom found in healthy emotional expressions.

The words we use matter!

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