How writers can help remove labels that overshadow trauma of sexual abuse
In “The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor,’” published earlier this month in the New York Times Magazine, writer and literary critic Parul Sehgal traces the rhetoric used for people who experience sexual abuse.
The essay offers up some valuable insights that media practitioners covering sexual assault might find helpful.
Sehgal begins with Virginia Woolf, who was repeatedly molested by her half-brother throughout her adolescence. Sehgal cites Woolf: “it is so difficult … to give any account of the person to whom things happen.” Woolf did not write about her sexual abuse until late in her career, close to her suicide.
“The evolving legal definition of rape has always been a bellwether of changing attitudes to race and gender, and the legitimacy of ‘survivor’ signals a subtle but important shift in thinking about sexual violence,” Sehgal writes. “The historian Estelle B. Freedman has argued that the story of rape in America ‘consists in large part in tracking the changing narratives that define which women may charge which men with the crime of forceful, unwanted sex and whose accounts will be believed.’”
These narratives, as we saw with the Pulitzer-winning story, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” are frequently dependent on context.
Labels like “survivor” carry a weight and an expectation that can overshadow trauma. Yet, this is the current popular term for someone who has experienced sexual abuse. It used to be “victim.” And in the future, which may be more populated by resilient characters in mainstream media, the term may ring closer to “superhero.”
Earlier this May, Roxane Gay author of the nonfiction essay collection “Bad Feminist” and recipient of the 2015 PEN USA Freedom to Write award, delivered the closing Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture at the 2016 PEN World Voices Festival.
Gay doesn’t shy away from writing explicitly about sexual abuse, feminism or trauma. Describing herself as “a mess that is full of contradictions” in her 2015 TED Woman talk, Gay has critiqued the language media uses to cover sexual violence and has delivered lectures that empower women to defy labels.
Sehgal’s “The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’” ultimately alludes to the fact that it has become easier for society to label people who have experienced sexual abuse than it is to listen to their individual stories. Gay shared a similar sentiment in an interview with Bust, saying: “Unfortunately the sexual abuse of women is so common, that people are afraid to deal with that commonality. They’re so afraid that … they’re willing to doubt every woman’s story.”
Gay — a writer who describes herself by what she is not — is not a victim, a survivor or a superhero; she’s a writer who refuses to be labeled by refusing to remain silent.
“I refuse to accept that inequality or violence and suffering are things we must accept as facts of life as if we do not dare to want for better, for more,” Gay said during her acceptance speech for the 2015 PEN USA Freedom to Write award. “I see this world as it is but I refuse to accept this world as it is. In my writing, there is no room for complacency.”
Gay’s speech and Sehgal’s essay offer up an important takeaway for media practitioners covering sexual assault. When tempted to use labels in stories, it can be helpful to ask sources: How do you want me to refer to you in the story? Is there particular language that you’d like me to avoid? When Noreen Malone, a senior editor at New York magazine, interviewed the 35 women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, she began each interview with an open question that let each woman choose the starting point for her story. Sometimes asking a few simple questions, rather than making assumptions, can go a long way.
Related: Meet Christa Hillstrom, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and journalist learning about recovery from a joint-lock ninja in Fargo | Three media projects show the value of reporting on topics long-term | 5 good reads on courage, empathy, and gratitude | How two Times-Picayune journalists reported ‘The Long Road’ series on sex abuse