The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism


Posted by caitlinate on August 3, 2009

Some of you may be aware of the term “white woman syndrome”. Not to be confused with “missing white woman syndrome” (though there are similarities) WWS generally refers to situations where the distress and or guilt of a white person about [a specific act of] racism overshadows any focus, conversation or energy being directed towards discussion or action about racism (or in fact the experiences of the individual who has experienced the original act of racism). The result will often be energy being directed away from the real issue or event and instead towards comforting the white person who has become upset about it.

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and I’ve come up with a new term: Non Survivor Syndrome. It doesn’t refer to exactly the same kinds of behaviour but I think the example of WWS is a fairly good start to explaining what I mean. (Also: I know that starting a critique of emotional appropriation by appropriating another term is problematic and I’m happy to hear critique of that in the comments.)

If you haven’t been raped, if you haven’t experienced sexual assault, then you do not know what it is like. There is a whole world of pain and unhappiness and grief and fear that you do not understand. It doesn’t matter if it happened to your best friend or your sister or your neighbour or your partner. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent weeks or months or years working with and supporting survivors. It doesn’t matter if you’ve watched SVU. If it hasn’t happened to you, then you do not understand.

I’m not saying that survivors shouldn’t be supported. I’m not saying that non-survivors shouldn’t be allies to victims of sexual assault. I’m not saying that non-survivors shouldn’t stand in solidarity with those who have been assaulted, shouldn’t listen to what they want or need and try and follow through. I’m not saying that non-survivors shouldn’t try their damnedest to try and understand what a survivor is going through and be there for them. What I’m saying is that if it hasn’t happened to you then you don’t know.

I say this because I’m getting a little tired of non-survivors appropriating the emotions and reactions of survivors. I’m tired of non-survivors having emotional breakdowns just because they have to deal with someone who is a known perpetrator. I’m tired of hearing non-survivors compare their experiences of dealing with a perpetrator as somehow akin to those of the person who was assaulted. I’m tired of communities rallying to support non-survivors in these situations whilst people who have been raped and have been assaulted are left in the cold, without the same support, because – maybe – it’s not as safe for them to express in public how uncomfortable or distressed they are, or how difficult the situation is for them. I’m tired of a whole world where non-survivors voices and needs are put before those of survivors and heard more loudly with no one questioning this or pulling it apart. I’m not talking about perpetrators being heard and survivors being silenced, we all know that happens and frequently. I’m talking about people who claim to stand in solidarity with survivors and who claim to have an understanding of sexual assault talking over the top of those who actually know what it is like.

I know that those close to survivors – particularly if they were around when the assault happened – have their own world of rage and grief related to what happened. I know that you generally won’t want to be around the person who perpetrated an assault against someone you care about. That’s fine, that’s fair, that’s normal and being able to express that is important. But your reaction to the perpetrator, your reaction to being near them, your emotional reaction to their presence or even existence: it’s not the same. The way that person makes you feel is not the same as the way the survivor feels. The way that person affects your life – even negatively – is not the way it affects the survivor’s life. The way any random perpetrator makes you feel is not the same as the way a survivor feels when they are around one.

I recognise that labelling this behaviour as I have is fairly problematic in itself. Most women I know have been the victim of a sexual assault of some kind. To level the term ‘non-survivor’ at another person makes a claim to a whole world of information you may not be privy to. Everyone has the right to not tell every single person they know – or even anyone – about their experiences. No one should be forced to justify their actions or emotions with an explanation about something they don’t really want to talk about. I’m not criticising people who work as allies to survivors or stating that only people who have experienced sexual assault should talk about it or work to stop it.

I’m saying that unless you’ve experienced it you don’t know what it’s like. I’m saying that sometimes non-survivors need to shut up and let survivors lead and be heard. I’m saying that in any specific situation the person who has been assaulted is the person who should be most important – even if other people around them have had a similar experience. I’m saying that in general non-survivors need to start thinking about how much space and how many experiences they are claiming to be privy to. I’m saying to non-survivors that getting upset on someone else’s behalf or about a situation you have never experienced but ‘can only imagine’ is actually really silencing. Your pain and rage is not less meaningful or less real, but it is incomparable to that of someone who has been sexually assaulted.



  1. Claire said

    I agree with the general sentiment that survivors have to lead and be heard etc. and that non-survivors should not (in a sense) appropriate the survivors’ pain once the non-survivors know what has happened. I fundamentally agree that non-survivors or anybody who wants to be a support person, is a friend etc. should be able to separate themselves from the survivor’s pain, especially when the survivor has just told the non-survivor what has happened. Basically the pain/event/processing period is not about the fucking non-survivor.

    HOWEVER I would temper that with the following example: if X and Y are both survivors (X doesn’t know that Y is a survivor), and if X is talking about how she is dealing with what happened and with the perp and Y is afraid of the perp – well I think that’s OK for Y to express that but not to impose how she would deal with it. So basically I think that if a person is talking about their experience then that person should be centered but yeah…

    I guess it’s basically about sensitivity to the survivor, not telling the person what to do, not making everything about you as an ally, support person or whatever – right? Hmmm…

    Yes and I think the use of White Woman Syndrome is an inappropriate example. I don’t think parellels need to be made, and a lot of people don’t even know what WWS is and bloody fight over it. *sigh*

  2. Kat said

    I personally feel like discussions on WWS are only productive when being presented to a progressive group of women who have demonstrated a willingness to be self reflective.

    I find the discussions tread too closely to gendered insults on hysterical/emotional women.

    A more standard check your privillege as well as checking your assumptions about the experiences of others is the best starting point.

  3. b33 said

    I think the WWS example was used to explain the term that caitlinate was using as opposed to a comparison. The problem with using the example of WWS was explicitly addressed, although I do agree parallels do not need to be made.

    It is true that most women I know have been the victim of sexual assault of some kind, however, this is the argument many women I know use in there justification of the non-survivor appropriation. This may not need to be said, but there is a difference between an assault like rape and verbal harassment. Sexual assault has been so politicised that people silence the survivors because of there perceived lack of understanding about ‘all the issues’ surrounding assault – at least this is what has happened to me many times in the past. I suppose you could conclude that if it has become so politicised than non-survivors appropriation has an important role, but it doesn’t help. It took me many years to tell another person about the assaults I experienced and even then it was through email. The guilt and shame is phenomenal. Countless things contribute to this shame but we don’t need people who ‘get’ assault to speak for us. People have there own way of telling those close to them, it is common to ‘drop hints’. Obviously you cannot infer things about others and draw conclusions based on indirect omissions, but if you allow yourself to create a nurturing, open environment based on what you suspect often a survivor will feel safe enough to speak.

    The X & Y example works but from my reading of caitlinate’s entry that is not what she is referring to. There be circumstances where NSS does not apply. You could also consider what/how people should know about a person being a survivor for them to be a survivor. If someone is a survivor, they do not always know this nor do they want to know it. The definitions become difficult when dealing with trauma. Many of you may have had conversations with a victim who claims after explaining there experiences that it is there fault or that it wasn’t really sexual assault.

    I hope that this response makes some sense. Thanks for posting caitlinate.

  4. b33 said

    Kat – You could say that most discussions are only productive when talking to a group of progressive people – is that any reason to stop? The same progressive people can also be silencing, I think that is what caitlinate could be referring to?

  5. Kat said

    I did not mean to suggest that conversation should not be had. The points that both B33 and Caitlinate have stated around the behaviour of allies is important.

    For instance, in the radio stunt detailed below it is amazing the number of people who have said “at least now the rape is being investigated and justice may be done”. Like telling is the biggest hurdle to justice! Like there are no friends, family and work colleagues who have chosen not to report their rape for the sake of their own safety/sanity.

    I do, however, question medicalising or pathologising the inappropriate response by naming the behaviour a syndrome.

    B33, your reference to the behaviour as appropriation is spot on. The ability to disengage. The ability to “take off” the identity when it suits.

  6. dosta said

    I think that the point caitlinate makes here is really important, that especially when supporting a survivor it is vital that it is their voice that is heard, and that for them, seeing the perpetrator (and perhaps even other people talking about them, or telling them ‘i saw this person’ etc.) will always be different to how it is for the non-survivors, no matter how close or distant to either they are/were.
    This is a hard piece to write I would think, big big commendation on it caitate.

  7. dosta said

    Also I think that in the time when a non-survivor is told (although with the ammount of survivors there are, I think perhaps that word is not quite correct maybe the non-immediate survivor?! although…anyway, just a thought) but I think it is probably not the time for that person to then get the survivor to listen to their survival stories in detail and become the supporter (Perhaps sharing to not feel completely isolated in that other people are survivors too is ok, but ensuring it is not told to ‘override’ or silence the survivors story is crucial, that it is about supporting the survivor) because everyone’s experiences will have been different and all need to be heard, but when supporting someone it is vital that it is SUPPORT and not silencing them or overrunning them with our/my/their stories. I hope I am being clear.

    I am sure that I have been that person with ‘non immediate survivor’ syndrome in this sense, that in a survivors strength, openness and courageousness I found it easier to then focus on my own survival and not theirs, which meant my support was not what I would want support for survivors (them and others) to look like, which is hard, shameful to admit, and I’m deeply sorry for it, but I can now only try and learn to become a better supporter and ally.

    So for that I thank you caitate for writing about this. Challenging.

  8. Kat said

    Great points Dosta.

  9. s.seyla said

    There’s no question in my mind that rape and sexual assault are much easier for non-survivors to talk about. I am even happy to admit that when I am in a group and someone casually drops in conversation that they are a survivor I get quite anxious, because I myself am not comfortable telling people this unless I have an already established relationship with them. The trauma for me as an adult woman in dealing with something that happened when I was a child is something I just cannot talk about. This is in no small way due to the reactions I got from my parents when I told them. The ongoing implications of that are my immediate family continue to refuse to have contact with me. So, yes I support this article and support the way that it acknowledges the pain of non-survivors. But I also get that as a survivor I have a long way to go before I am able to articulate the things I would like to tell my non-survivor friends and family in language they would understand and without finding it so unbearably hard.

    I would also like to add that in the *only* support like group I have ever had experience with, I felt there was a lot of prejudice toward people who were raped as children. The general feeling I got was ‘you didn’t understand sex so it wasn’t as bad’. I sometimes feel that I am expected to grow out of the pain, even by other survivors. I think my point is that the way rape and sexual assault are subject to not just intensely personal and individual experiences, but also social frames, we need to work on the way we communicate to each other as survivors as well as to non-survivors.

  10. b33 said

    S.seyla, I agree with what you are saying. People often treat childhood abuse as different to adult and I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t know how I feel about that because sexual assault is not treated well in either instance so it is not as if one group is better of. Refer to the recent TDC post on Kyle Sandilands as it addresses an aspect of this that you might find interesting.

    It is a common belief that when you have lived with the experience that time settles and the trauma lessens. Not surprisingly, we still have a lot to learn about trauma and how it affects the survivor, so the notion that trauma is worse or more palpable for an adult who recently experienced an assault is just not true.

    Due to the circumstances of one of my assaults I don’t think I will ever be able to tell my immediate family. I think it takes strength to speak about it and you are brave for having done that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: