What is a Victim?

Today, we’re going to talk about the word “victim.” 

Not long ago, I posted about a woman who was murdered in Turkey, and a few commenters took issue with my referring to her as a “victim,” suggesting doing so based on her gender was a kind of sexism in itself. Which it absolutely would be, if that’s what I was doing, but it isn’t. A victim is a person who is injuriously acted upon by another person or force. It applies the same way whether you’re talking about a male or a female. Sarai Sierra is not a victim because she was female, she is a victim because someone murdered her. In the United States, women are much likelier than men to be victims of certain kinds of crime – sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and stalking – but that does not affect the gender-neutrality of the word “victim.”

“Victim” gets misapplied sometimes. For example, I’ve seen people referring to the women named in Seth MacFarlane’s ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ Oscar song as victims, ostensibly because the reaction shots made it look like they had not consented to be included. But a closer look at those shots and an understanding of how those jokes make it to stage suggest they were in on the joke as consenting participants. And as is so often the case in matters of Vagina News, it all comes down to consent. (That doesn’t mean anyone has to change how they feel about the song, it just means it’s not an example of these women being victimized.)

Then we arrive at “victim-blaming”, which refers to holding a victim in some way responsible for the injurious action inflicted upon them. It manifests itself in large and small of ways, and results in a collective failure to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. For instance, the most common example of victim-blaming is saying ‘she was asking for it, look what she was wearing’ in the context of a sexual assault. But it is also victim-blaming when police change a victim’s statement to make a crime look like attempted burglary vs. attempted rape. Or when an institution fails to properly handle reports from victims, and then takes punitive action against those victims for trying to circumvent the broken system

Like many people, I’ve been following the story of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp. He’s the runner who made history last year as the first amputee to compete in the Olympic games, and she was a model and anti-domestic violence activist. They were a couple. Just over a week ago, Steenkamp was in Pistorius’s bathroom with the door locked in the middle of the night, when Pistorius fired four shots through the door, killing her. He says he mistook her for an intruder, others say  there’s evidence of domestic violence and/or premeditation. As is often the case in domestic homicides, we may never know what really happened. But we know Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp, and that makes her a victim.

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