By David S. Prescott, LICSW
In the early 2000s, I was fortunate to become friends with Jan Hindman, who had taken part in many of the original professional activities that led to the establishment of ATSA. In her inimitable style, when interviewed on her role in the history of ATSA, she referred to herself as having been “the first vagina on the board.” Jan was friendly, loving, funny, and above all never turned her focus away from the suffering of those who had been abused. She used to wonder aloud what people who have survived abuse would make of our field. She often said the words, “Victims are watching.” It was a reference to the importance of carrying out our work in a manner that is sensitive to the experiences of vulnerable people and not passing them by as we seek ever-more-accurate diagnoses and assessment tools.
Of course, given the rates of victimization in the histories of those who have abused, it’s safe to say that practitioners are not strangers to working with people who have endured extreme adversity and caused harm. However, those who split their practice between those who perpetrate and those who have been harmed often describe how challenging the work can be. Bearing witness to suffering is hard work, and so is shifting one’s focus from perpetration in some clients to anguish in others and then back again.
Fast forward a few years and in the title of a now classic article, Gwenda Willis asked, “Why call them by what we don’t want them to be?” Her article focuses on the ethics of labeling people rather than their actions. Likewise, Willis and Letourneau (2014) wrote on the importance of accurate and respectful language. These articles played a direct role in policy shifts in multiple areas. ATSA’s journal, Sexual Abuse, suggests that authors use person-first language. This has been the subject of other blogs and articles, and the practice of person-first language has been commonplace in the adolescent arena of practice for many years. It needs no further substantive review here, except to note that many professionals have asked whether there isn’t a new term to describe those who sexually abuse others. Unfortunately, replacing one term with another simply ends up with further reductions in accuracy, as noted above.
Inside our field and even more so outside of it, person-first language is becoming more commonplace. Interestingly, we have not seen this same focus on accuracy and respect actively applied to those who have been harmed. While many of us have tried to develop new writing skills and habits, it is still very common to hear the term “victim” used, although the APA has recently offered guidance on inclusive language.
We are not the first to notice that people who have been sexually abused frequently do not like being called “victims.” A common objection is “I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Many prefer the term “survivor,” while many don’t. Worse, professionals working with individuals who have committed egregious crimes are aware that not everyone who is abused actually does survive. Discussions of terminology can be highly contentious and rightfully so; we’re discussing deeply personal matters and people rarely agree on everything.
Language, of course, is constantly evolving. In the current era, it can be common to hear people using the term “victim” in pejorative ways (accusing others of “playing the victim,” or of contributing to a “culture of victimhood,” etc.). In a discussion in the development of this post, co-blogger Kasia Uzieblo observed that the Dutch word for victim is “slachtoffer.” A client described how she and others hate this word because of its linguistic origins (slacht-offer translates as slaughter-sacrifice). If there is any comfort in this, it’s that all languages seem to struggle with these issues.
Nevertheless, it seems only respectful to extend the same courtesy of using person-first language to everybody and to ask whether there is particular language that they prefer. At a time in society when respect and accuracy often go missing from discourse, this can be a good place to start.