NON SURVIVOR SYNDROME
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.