On Silence - Restricted narratives of gendered sexualized violence
It is not a coincidence that mainstream feminist movements are spearheaded by white, hetero, middle class women, and pinkpussy hats. In the margins of their presence though, lies a beautiful resistance waiting to be heard.
From Jördis Spengler
It has been claimed that the last years have been marked by women empowerment. Widespread movements calling out sexual assault and daily sexism have made their way into mainstream culture. But does the fact that these stories are omnipresent mean that our perception of gender sexualized violence has changed or is it just old wine in a new bottle?
What intrigues me about gendered sexualized violence in western patriarchal society is the paradox of how it is narrated, discoursed and controlled. I am interested in examining the specific ways of how gendered sexualize violence is addressed in dominant discourses and thereby alters the performativity and agency of the subject.
What I will concentrate on in this short presentation is first, an approach how to talk about sexualized violence, and second a discussion how dominant narratives fail to put agency to people affected by sexualized violence, due to the social frameworks they draw from.
I want to begin with the theoretical approach: The main aim here is to establish a different form of how we talk about and with subjects that have experienced sexualized violence. This new form should concentrate on the different social implications that are applying on each subject individually and thereby change the possibilities of intervention and prevention.
To start with, it’s those frameworks and knowledges of our social position that determine how we determine what sexualized violence and harassment is.
I understand sexualized violence in form of harassment and rape as a phenomena which exists in the wider frameworks of patriarchy, colonization and white supremacy, and marks a divergence of hierarchic power relations.
Different forms of violence sustain and reinforce themselves and systems of oppression work in interconnected ways. This is especially important when we talk about intervention and agency in diverse groups. And it helps to question pre-existing narratives and characteristics that are applied to those who have experienced it.
Philosopher Sara Ahmed pointed out that every subject is regarded as such by notions of the patriarchal apparatus of knowledge. Being identified as a subject with boundaries thus is based on assumptions of authenticity and legitimacy in our wider network of significances. That means we believe those we find credible within the parameters of our social framework. What does this mean for a subject which is affected by gendered sexualized violence in western patriarchal society? As the normalization of this violence is common in western society, there is a tendency of silencing the narratives of those who have experienced it. The popular ‘MeToo' movement was a an attempt to challenge this status quo. But how successful is such an attempt within our society? And whose stories are the ones being heard?
Can it be that we can address and simultaneously silence a subject? I argue that yes, we can and we do. It is not just about addressing the subject at all, but how the subject is addressed. I argue that in nowadays society, the specific ways of addressing the subject perpetuate silence and isolation through the cultural scripts that are offered.
The majority of scripts on gendered sexualized violence can be located between two dichotomous categories that I will call hysteria and catharsis. These categories are likewise in a dialectical relationship, reinforcing and sustaining each other. With both, the focus lies on the victimization of the person in question. Victimhood associations are weak, powerless, passive and broken. A victim of sexualized violence must be broken, innocent, sad and pure to be believed. If the subject in question does not fulfil these characteristics, the validity of her narrative is instantly doubted.
The other possibility is to be an angry victim, but nevertheless a broken one, forever marked by the assault and in need of vengeance or the cathartic experience. Both of those models are deeply entrenched in popcultural representation of (mostly) female bodies and realities. They both draw on deeply patriarchal frameworks of female emotionality and notion of female vulnerability that have been used as an oppressive tool ever since. Public accounts of sexual assault and rape are predominantly narrated in those terms. It is a form of public voyerism; the crowds watching the assaulted cutting herself open to bleed her testimony to decide whether its true or not. In the same way as PinkPussy hats, it is a sensationalist exposure of trauma.
Counter narratives as ways of resistance
The paradox of how rape is discursively constructed and the lived reality of the subjects can be taken as a starting point of resistance. The multi-dimensional aspects of gendered sexual violence, such as the normalization of sexualized violence in dominant discourses, through language and the pre-given cultural scripts, all benefit the silencing of different experiences. Communicative processes work in the socially accepted parameters of our surrounding. Thus, what can not be narrated, creates a void. This void is not the absence of voice, it the non-accessibility to a public sphere. Or, in foucauldian terms, undesirable knowledge.
As Foucault noticed, dichotomous categories of sexuality have been established to control the subject in society. To recede from the dominant categories can mark a distinction and break. People who have experienced assault need to be recognized as political active subjects. We need to work towards a narrative situation, where we are free to interpret our experience on its own terms; within its own social positions.
While acknowledged as a subject that has experienced assault, we do not pre-assume the mental or inner constitution of that subject, and thereby limit their agency. But rather, we can gain insight into the nature of these specific transgressions, that then tell us about the mechanisms underlying and enabling sexualized violence. We mark the experience of gendered violence in the axis of significance, but not as one that determines the identity of the subject as a whole. This can be a useful tool to dismantle normalization of sexualized violence in dominant institutions, such as academia, and social work as well. Thus it can open up grey areas of resistance, of counter narratives and thereby direct interventions. When we accept the diversity of narratives around gendered sexualized violence, we can intervene and understand gendered sexualized violence more successfully. For example, it is possible to flee the binary categories of the hypersexualized male perpetrator and the female victim, that are deeply entrenched in patriarchal conceptualizations of what rape and sexualized violence is. As the raped subject stands non-gendered, it opens up a new, more inclusive perspective.
Experiences alter the subject, but the way this altering is processed and experienced is dependent on the social reaction and the ability to recognize and acknowledge the varieties of experiences. If we include a political subject in our analysis of sexualized violence, this subject thus gains agency to change the status quo on how we react to sexualized violence. Subjects can only be heard as such if they are recognized as legitimate, and with political agency. This political agency, or political performativity needs a space where it can unfold. It is not a coincidence that mainstream feminist movements are spearheaded by white, hetero, middle class women, and pinkpussy hats. In the margins of their presence though, lies a beautiful resistance waiting to be heard.
As subjects are in a constant transmission, they feel and sense the ambiguity and the distress of surrounding frameworks. As Ahmed puts it, the challenge to navigate the body, in a world that only wants to accommodate some, is a challenge visibly, materially performed. Those frameworks transform us into bystanders of assault.
We know for fact that sexual harassment and rape is less likely to be reported when there is a high perception of self-shame and guilt. The fear of stigmatization and disbelief minimize the chance of disclosure. Through the way we approach and present people that have experienced or perpetrated violence, we can limit or create self shame and guilt. Therefore, it's even more important to have an intersectional perspective on the implications and settings of sexual assault in mainstream media and our communities.
As caretakers, activists, writers and bystanders of a patriarchal society, we need to aim for accessibility aside from the common strategies or perspectives. If we open ourselves up to listen and represent a variety of narratives, we thus gain the possibility of social transformation. In form of new intervention strategies, prevention models and most importantly, agency for those who it was taken from.
Currently living in Spain, sociologist, educator, activist (always feels so strange to say that, no?) writing on the edges of academia about bodies, gender, refugee struggles, and anti-capitalism.