Violence against 'other' women: feminist exclusions

Yet mainstream feminist understandings of sexual violence often erase important differences among women. As Kimberle Crenshaw points out, such analyses have typically failed to engage with the complex intersections of oppression in women's lives by assuming the primacy of gender identity as the motivating factor in all acts of sexual abuse. [40] As Crenshaw argues, "the elision of difference in identity politics is problematic because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other [non-gender] dimensions of their identities such as race and class." [41] Similarly, Sharon Allard critiques the feminist legal model of 'battered woman's syndrome' as reliant upon essentialist conceptions of women's reactions to domestic assault. [42]

Courts often reinforce essentialist views of the 'appropriate' behavior of the female victim. For example, the use of the 'reasonable person' standard in cases of violence against women denies the subtle operations of power and the complexities of women's responses to the violent experiences of rape and sexual assault. Yet as studies of rape trauma syndrome indicate, many women experience rape as a shocking, disarming, and ultimately disabling crisis. Some women freeze in response to this trauma, and are therefore unable to take the 'reasonable' action of voicing dissent or physically resisting their assailant's behavior. Similarly, the legal definition of force discounts the subtle power dynamics that often accompany sexual assault. The legal assumption that all sex is consensual unless proven otherwise assumes a certain positioning of men and women as equals, or as similarly situated within all social and professional contexts. Yet this perspective denies the reality of pervasive sexual inequality.

Reductive feminist analyses of sexual violence overlook crimes whose primary motivation is not gender, such as abuse in lesbian relationships and among people of color. They also invalidate women whose responses to violence do not conform to conventionally 'feminine' behaviors. Their net effect is to deny the various levels of identity-based oppression that are interwoven in women's lives and to enforce particular exclusions in the interest of feminist politics.

Eve Sedgwick understands the trend toward reductive narratives of violence against women as an effect of the dynamic links between sex and power. In her multi-dimensional analysis of sexual violence in Gone With the Wind, Sedgwick explores the ways in which rape is either assumed or erased in the novel according to a complex interplay of sexual and racial politics. She points out that when Scarlett O'Hara is physically attacked by a black man in an encounter that does not include actual sex, for example, this act nonetheless "fully means rape, both to her and to all the forces in her culture that produce and circulate powerful meanings. It makes no difference that one constituent element of rape is missing: but the missing constituent is simply sex." [43] On the other hand, when Rhett (a white man) rapes his wife Scarlett (a white woman), the violent encounter is not constituted as such; instead, it is portrayed and widely understood as a hallmark of marital bliss. Finally, when white men rape black women in the novel, "the issue of force vs. consent is never raised" [44] because black women are positioned as 'unrapeable' within the larger culture.

Feminist theorists including Sedgwick, Allard and Crenshaw emphasize the need to consider the specific intersectionalities of violence against women, and what they enable at the levels of the female body and identity. Drawing on their insights, I would argue that violence against women does mean something different when it is perpetrated against a transgendered individual. In this sense, feminist analysis has everything to gain by engaging with difference as it impacts women's multifaceted experiences of sexual violence. A failure to address the dynamics of intersectionality threatens to efface those acts of violence in which gender is not the only, or the primary, motivating factor. Such a failure would relegate the identity of 'other' women like Brandon Teenato "a location that resists telling." [45]

Of course, criticism of mainstream feminist thought abounds within contemporary feminist discourse—which means that it is neither fair nor relevant to distinguish between mainstream feminism and its contemporary critiques. To construe feminism as exclusively focused on gender "denies the emergence of a feminism specific to women of color in the U.S. who have sought to complicatethe feminist framework to take account of relations of power that help to constitute and yet exceed gender—including race and racialization, as well as geopolitical positionality in colonial and postcolonial contexts." [46] Feminist theory remains a dynamic and viable field of inquiry because it has carved out a critical space for internal debate—and by its willingness to remain self-critical with respect to an evolving body of theoretical assumptions.