April 26, 2007

Failing to Theorise Rape?

A thread on the London Feminist Network and a comment made by Delphyne on this blog challenged the introduction on the website accompanying the blog and I post this answer in reply.

What do we mean when we say that feminism has failed to theorise rape?

Some of you have been concerned about a statement in the introduction to our website. It states:

This symposium emerges from the failure of feminism in theorising rape. It seems to have been left to women writers to interrogate the representation of women and rape and this symposium aims to analyse how these writers have subverted terms such as `victim’, `experience’, `survivor’, `active’ and `passive’.

Rereading this now I can see that it is rather ambiguous, but if I direct you to the call for papers, perhaps it will be clearer. The symposium actually emerges from reading an essay by Carine M. Mardorossian entitled `Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape’. As I explain in the call for papers, Mardorossian argues that for British and American feminisms, `[r]ape has become academia’s undertheorized and apparently untheorizable issue’. Mardorossian asks why there is such `stagnation in the theorizing of sexual violence precisely at a time when the body is so high on the feminist scholars’ list of priorities’ and she seeks to understand this phenomenon. Mardorossian demands an alternative feminist theory that addresses these problems i.e. that `does not accept existing premises and established “truths” but problematizes them by asking alternative questions and offering different conceptions’. However, some feminists have criticised Mardorossian’s suggestions for a solution at the end of her article, because they are rooted in challenging representations rather than in detailed sociological research. Mardorossian demands that feminists `resist the facile opposition between passivity and agency’. She concludes that ultimately feminists must `theorize and reconceptualize the meanings of categories such as “victim” and “experience” rather than merely criticize their use’.

So when we say that feminism has failed to theorise rape we are really talking about feminism as an academic discipline and actually we agree with you that on the whole it is writers, activists, law specialists and other figures less involved in academia who are retheorising rape. However I can see though on reading the web page again that there is an ambiguity so thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Who is theorising rape then?

Despite the claim that feminism has failed to re-theorise rape, this symposium aims to show that the kind of subversive representational deconstruction demanded by Mardorossian is already being performed in contemporary literary texts that deal with sexual violence and this symposium aims to bring some of these feminists together to encourage dialogue, to learn from one another and to discover what else is being done in the field. At the event, there will be speakers talking about writers like Zoe Wicomb, Yvonne Vera, Buchi Emecheta, Sarah Kane, Marina Carr and there will also be papers about how women in `the real world’ are re-theorising rape, such as women in the Holocaust and women writing popular music. There will be a few papers trying to redress representations of women in relation to rape narratives in the cult celebrity machine and newspaper representations.

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