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Seeing the whole survivor: Why it’s necessary to talk about identity for survivors as individuals and in groups

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Inevitably, when an article is shared that shines a light on one group of survivors – such as teen survivors, Native American survivors, or male survivors –  some folks feel left out, confused, or even ignored. But why is that? And what value is there in looking at survivors from the perspective of their group identity?

Before we begin to discuss why it is necessary to talk about identity and how this impacts survivors as individuals and in groups, it is necessary to lay groundwork for this important conversation by acknowledging a few key points. 

  • Every survivor’s experience is unique and valid. Although there are many ways survivors relate to one another in their experience of trauma and journey to healing – a survivor’s experience is uniquely shaped by their personal history, identity, context, culture, and community.   
  • Acknowledging the realities of one survivor’s story doesn’t make another survivor’s story less true or worthy. Sexual violence is always harmful and should always be taken seriously. 
  • Survivors are never to blame for the harm inflicted on them by another person, and it will be necessary for us to reinforce this message as long as we live in a society that devalues the voices of survivors, normalizes violence and abuse, and does not hold those who cause harm accountable. 

Starting with a shared understanding of identity 

For the purpose of this discussion, we will be using the term “identity” to encompass characteristics such as age, gender, sexual orientation, race, cultural background, disability, religion, and other factors. Our identities exist on an individual level, and they also connect us to group identities in many ways. For instance maybe you identify as a veteran, college student, single parent, or senior citizen. Or you could identify as gender non-conforming, single, working-class, bilingual, or even as a citizen of the city or town you live in or were raised in. Each of these identities shapes us as individuals and influences our experiences, and they also influence how we are seen and treated by others.

All of these parts of identity shape survivors’ experiences, and we cannot truly see and serve survivors as a whole person without understanding their unique story and identities. In the same way, we cannot fully understand the complexity of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse without acknowledging the unique ways it impacts survivors with different identities. Just at it is important for us as individuals to cultivate awareness of how our lived experience and identities impacts our world view and our daily choices – it’s also essential for us to understand how our experience is simultaneously shaped by our position in society and how that differs from others whose experiences and social position are different than our own. For instance, two people could both identify as survivors, and yet all the other aspects of their identities could make their survivorship experiences look completely different. For this reason, we can never assume anyone is having the same experience as we are or that we know exactly what someone else is going through – every experience and path is different. 

The challenges of talking about difference 

Talking about difference is tricky. When we talk about ideas like “one size fits all approaches don’t work” and the need for “different strokes for different folks” it sounds simple. Yet it can be difficult when we talk about difference in direct ways, such as talking about oppression. Oppression is when power is not equal and when individuals and groups are allowed to exercise power over others in ways that lead to bias, exclusion, and mistreatment. Oppression often shows up as inequality based on factors such as race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and level of ability. These forms of inequality have deep roots in our history and society, and for some it can feel challenging or even divisive to talk about. This is especially true when it comes to talking about the ways survivors may have different experiences or may be treated differently because of their identity. 

The goal of talking about the different experiences of different groups of survivors is never to fuel comparison between the suffering or harm any person or group has experienced. Remember, we believe sexual violence is always harmful and should always be taken seriously. Still it is important for us to recognize the different needs, experiences, and vulnerabilities of survivors in different groups. A survivor’s experience and journey may be impacted by mental health conditions, struggles with addiction, experiences of homelessness, living with a disability, or being incarcerated, undocumented, or in the military. None of these experiences are mutually exclusive, and each impacts survivors individually and collectively. This is also true for survivors’ identities based on race, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation – especially when we recognize the ways sexual violence is used by those who have more power in society to abuse and silence others. Whether you are a survivor, are the loved one of a survivor, or in a role supporting survivors – it’s important to remember the goal is not comparison. The goal of recognizing differences is to better understand the range of ways people are impacted by sexual harassment, assault and abuse and the ways sexual violence is used as a weapon of oppression against individuals and groups of survivors. 
Real examples of looking at difference helps us support survivors 

What does it look like in practice when we recognize some of the differences in survivors’ experiences? This gives us the opportunity to see ways of expanding our work to be more inclusive and responsive. Here are some examples of what this can look like:

  • Autistic Survivors: Although there is a significant amount of research of high rates of sexual violence experienced by persons with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities – there is less information available looking at specific disabilities such as autism.  To address this gap we recently developed a guide for sexual assault advocates and counselors on “Responding to survivors with autism spectrum disorders.” This guide talks about specific strategies for communication, the role of care givers and significant others, and how to make appropriate accommodations to better serve survivors with autism.
  • Teenage Survivors: Teens who experience sexual assault and abuse have different needs than children, adults, and older adults who experience abuse. NSVRC recently created a manual for advocates working with teens that discusses complex topics like the way the developing teen brain is impacted by trauma and how to navigate confidentiality and mandatory reporting given the legal considerations facing survivors under the age of 18. One reason it is imperative to reach teens is because research suggests that teens who are survivors of sexual assault are at greater risk of future victimization. Research also helps us to understand how important it is to ensure outreach and prevention efforts are inclusive – because youth of color, homeless youth, teens with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth are even more likely to experience sexual violence.
  • Identity Specific Organizations: The needs and experiences of survivors and communities are so varied it is unfortunately the case that even the best efforts to be comprehensive still leave too many out. NSVRC collaborates with many partner organizations that focus specifically on meeting the unique needs of specific communities and groups. Just a few of our partners who offer real examples of how understanding different helps ups better help survivors include:
    • 1in6 focuses on challenging the social stigma and silence around male sexual abuse by increasing awareness of the issue and facilitating spaces for male survivors to heal together. 
    • Casa de Esperanza provides training and support to organizations across the country to enhance their work with Latin@ and Latinx survivors and communities. Their work helps programs understand the ways language barriers, immigration status, and cultural practices and beliefs can impact survivors of intimate partner violence in this community. 
    • Just Detention International advocates for the safety and dignity of people in prisons, jail, and detention. They work to ensure that survivors in detention get the help they need as they work to change attitudes that minimize prison rape: No matter what crime someone may have committed, rape is not part of the penalty.
    • Black Women’s Blueprint is focused on empowering black women and girls to address how historic abuses continue to have an ongoing impact – from the legacy of slavery to sexual and reproductive exploitation, and police violence. They also take on initiatives to celebrate the experiences and contributions of individuals of African descent and redefine concepts of healing and justice from the perspectives of black survivors. 

The role of difference when sexual violence is used as a weapon of domination

As this blog has discussed, sexual violence can impact people of any age, gender, religion, ethnicity, and identity. Still, when looking at rates of sexual violence there are communities and groups who face a disproportionate impact. Research on the prevalence of sexual violence helps us to understand how individuals who are members of groups that have historically been devalued continue to face higher rates of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. 

  • People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate more than seven times higher than people with no disabilities. 
  • Nearly 50% of transgender people have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. These rates are even higher for trans people of color and those who have done sex work, been homeless, or have (or had) a disability. 
  • Black non-Hispanic women (44%) and multiracial non-Hispanic women (54%) are significantly more likely to have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate in their lifetime, compared to White non-Hispanic women (35%). 
  • 1 of 3 Native American/Alaskan Indian (NA/AI) women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, making the average annual rate of rape and sexual assault among American Indians 3.5 times higher than for all other races. 

These statistics serve as a reminder that sexual violence is rooted in inequality and disparities of power. It also serves as a reminder for those who do not represent these groups that discrimination and oppression are ongoing and not issues of the past. For example, the ongoing racism and oppression faced by women of color puts them at greater risk for experiencing sexual assault. It’s also important to recognize that individuals and groups have layers of identity and circumstances which can further increase the disproportionate impact of sexual violence.

Acknowledging difference and rising together

When it comes to expanding the inclusivity of sexual assault services and prevention education, it can be very helpful exercise to think of whose stories are told the least and to identify ways to bring those stories and experiences to the forefront. Whenever we represent the experiences of survivors it’s vital to ask whose voices are still missing? How can we use the tools available to us to help uncover and present a wider range of experiences? This is important because representation and empowerment are ways we can combat how sexual violence is used as a weapon of oppression and the ongoing barriers of inequality. 

By exploring the importance of recognizing and acknowledging difference in understanding the range of ways sexual violence impacts different identities, groups, and communities we also want to share the hope of survivors rising and healing together. By understanding power disparities and abuses of power as a common thread even among a wide range of instances of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse – we can identify ways to move our work on behalf of all survivors forward.  It has been said that a rising tide lifts all the boats, and this holds true of every time we challenge the silence, stigma, and barriers facing any group of survivors. In the face of so much silence, we know there is always space for more voices, different stories, and new perspectives. By choosing to open ourselves up beyond our own experience to embrace the lived experiences and truths of others whose experiences are different than our own – we can rise together.