Caveats Regarding Victim Activism

Though beneficial for many, becoming a victim activist is not a requisite step in trauma recovery and may be problematic for some. Because people recover in different ways and have different needs, community action is not necessarily appropriate for all crime victims. The individual's personality and history of victimization may play a role in determining whether community involvement will be helpful to recovery, while the availability of emotional and financial supports may be a factor in determining whether the victim has the time and energy to spend on community issues. Some victims of crime, though able to lead normal lives, may never feel prepared to deal with the pain of others or the frustrations of advocacy efforts. Being a victim may not be enough by itself to lead to activism; there is some evidence that victims who become active in community efforts are likely to have been activists before the crime.32 In the absence of clear criteria for when activism is likely to benefit a traumatized individual, a victim's own interest and desire to participate should be the determining factor. Rather than prescribing activism as a necessary part of the recovery process, professionals can provide people with opportunities for action, and support those who choose to get involved.

Timing is also an important consideration in community involvement. Advocating for legislative reform or helping others before coming to terms with their own trauma may impede some victims' recovery. Lebowitz, Harvey and Herman note that what they call the third stage of trauma recovery-reconnecting with others-should not be attempted until the earlier steps of achieving a sense of safety and exploring and integrating the traumatic event have been achieved.33 Unless they have reached this stage, victims may be unable to cope with other people's trauma on top of their own. Listening to others' crime stories may exacerbate fears and bring back disturbing, even overwhelming, memories of their own experiences, thereby retraumatizing them.34 Research on MADD's Victim Impact Panels has shown that the act of speaking out was beneficial for the over- whelming majority (87 percent) of participants; the few participants (3 percent) who felt they were harmed by it had become involved too close to the incident-they were still using coping strategies, such as denial, that conflicted with telling their stories publicly.35 This suggests that victims who invest themselves in advocacy efforts too soon may be taking on more than they are ready to handle. If individual change is difficult, societal change is even more so, especially in the face of political opposition. To avoid these pitfalls, activism generally should be encouraged later rather than earlier in the recovery process.

Certain types of activism may cause victims to feel exploited, potentially revictimizing them and setting back their recovery. For example, some victims who have spoken out through television and other news media feel that they have been taken advantage of-that their messages were misrepresented or their words cut or edited to alter their meaning. In an attempt to make a story more compelling, some journalists recast victim activists' identities, portraying them as powerless and pitiable rather than empowered and brave. As a result, victims may feel embarrassed or betrayed, and may be less likely to speak out in the future. To avoid revictimization and to appropriately access the power of the media, victim activists need to understand how the media works-for example, that their page-one story may fade completely from the news a day later. Victim services organi- zations can provide training for crime victim activists as to what they might expect from working with the media. And the news media need to become sensitive to the risk of revictimization as well as the value of victim activism.

Finally, some victims interested in activism may not feel comfortable getting involved through organizations that are labeled as "victim" activist or "victim" assistance, which is one reason why other community groups-religious institutions, community organizations, neighborhood and parent groups and other formal and informal organizations-should support crime prevention and activist efforts. Some individuals who already have ties with these groups may feel more comfortable taking action in familiar settings within their support networks than venturing into new organizations. Thus, institutions outside the victim field need to be supportive of victims, and recognize that victim involvement can benefit both their own individual members' well-being and their efforts for community improvement.

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