Labels have the potential to uplift or limit an individual. In work with women and children who have been sexually exploited I have often heard survivors defined as victims. The motive behind this has been to draw attention to the plight of sex workers; it has been been done with positive intent but it has potential for great harm.
To identify a woman with experience in the sex trade as a victim delays her healing; it magnifies a perception of her as helpless that she may internalize and puts emphasis on the fact that her vulnerabilities were taken advantage of, potentially causing an increase in her distrust of others as well as of her own sense of judgment. Identifying a woman as a survivor is both recognizing and emphasizing her resilience, strength, courage and perseverance. It is saying to that woman that she is worthy and capable; she is whole and adequate. One approach fortifies the confidence and competence of a woman; the other undermines it.
Survivors of the sex trade, whether actively involved or exited, are survivors. Period. They are survivors of childhood abuse and neglect, survivors of violence in intimate relationships, survivors of violence in the industry, survivors of loss, survivors of poverty, survivors of homelessness and of many other forms of trauma. Given that the average age of entry into the sex trade is 13 to 14 years old, many of these individuals have survived these intense and complex traumas for over a decade. And they are still here. They continue to function; to look for and experience love, to care for themselves and others and to seek out the resources that will help them meet their needs. This is not helplessness. This is strength. This is the ability to carry on and persevere. This is not victimhood; this is survivorship.