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Sociological Spectrum:
Mid-South Sociological
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Victim feminism/victim
activism
Dawn McCaffrey
a

b
a
Department of Sociology , University at
Albany , Albany, New York, USA
b
1064 Sonoma Avenue, Menlo Park, California,
94025, USA E-mail:
Published online: 30 Jul 2010.
To cite this article: Dawn McCaffrey (1998) Victim feminism/victim activism,
Sociological Spectrum: Mid-South Sociological Association, 18:3, 263-284, DOI:
10.1080/02732173.1998.9982198
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02732173.1998.9982198
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VICTIM FEMINISM/VICTIM ACTIVISM
DAWN MCCAFFREY
Department of Sociology, University at Albany, University at Albany,
Albany, New York, USA
Scholars and critics from diverse fields have forwarded various argu-
ments about the nature and representation of victimhood and victims.
For the critics and scholars, victimhood is constructed as a state of
powerlessness. Although constructionist arguments recognize an ideol-
ogy undergirding victim constructions, they do not explicitly engage
with postmodern debates on the workings of disciplinary power. Data
from 20 in-depth interviews with women who have experienced sexual
abuse or sexual assault suggest that they view themselves as survivors, a
construction defined against dominant representations of victims. A
postmodern view on power is applied to illuminate dynamics of the
debate around victimhood and identity.
Sexual violence toward women and subsequent claims of vic-
timhood have emerged as contested sites not only among aca-
demics, but also among social commentators. With the rise of
victimology as a discipline, attention has been devoted to
mapping the features of victimhood. Social constructionists and
symbolic interactionists have framed "victimhood" as a dynamic
process (Quinney 1972; Holstein and Miller 1990) with an under-
lying ideology (Best 1997). At the same time, various com-
mentators and theoreticians, some from feminist camps, have
also been part of the dialogue on sexual victimhood. The critical
commentators cast the anti-sexual violence movement as mired
in a self-congratulatory victim culture, where victim-activists
Received 15 July 1997; accepted 15 December 1997.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the meetings of the American Sociological
Association in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1997. This research has been supported by a grant
from Initiatives for Women, State University of New York, University at Albany.
I wish to thank Linda Nicholson, Nelson Pichardo, Melinda Miceli, Joanne Reger, Jackie Eller,
and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article. I
also gratefully acknowledge the courageous women who shared with me their stories of sexual
violence.
Address correspondence to: Dawn McCaffrey, 1064 Sonoma Avenue, Menlo Park, California
94025, USA. E-mail: DMccaffrey@aol.com
Sociological Spectrum, 18:263-284,1998
Copyright 1998 Taylor & Francis
0273-2173/98 $12.00 +.00 263
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264 D. McCaffrey
construct an identity based on powerlessness.
1
Although this
debate has garnered much attention in the popular press
(Lachner 1993; Pollitt 1993), a shortcoming of the cited com-
mentators is the lack of solid empirical support. In essence, the
critics rely on observation and anecdotal evidence in formulat-
ing their critiques.
Although victimologists and social critics have illuminated
some important contours of victimization, postmodern develop-
ments around power attend to aspects of victimhood that have
been neglected in previous work. In particular, postmodern
accounts of power attend to the power embedded in discourse
and the power enacted through the production of identities.
Following a review of current literature, data from in-depth
interviews with 20 female sexual violence victim-activists are
presented. A postmodern view of power is used to highlight the
shortcomings of constructionist and critical accounts of victim-
hood. Suggestions for further research are offered in the con-
cluding sections of this article.
CONSTRUCTIONS OF VICTIMHOOD
With the inauguration of victimology as a discipline, con-
structionists and interactionists have made inroads into mapping
the contours of victimhood. Breaking from positivist tradition,
constructionists and interactionists view victimhood not as an
unproblematic and objective reality state, but rather as an inter-
actional accomplishment subject to contextual contingencies
(Holstein and Miller 1990; Quinney 1972). In addition to prob-
lematizing the putative objectivity of victimhood, construc-
tionists and interactionists have argued that the process of
assigning victim status not only serves a descriptive function,
but also forwards implicit instruction on how to view the victims
and their particular social milieu (Holstein and Miller 1990). For
Holstein and Miller, designating an individual or group as victim
calls forward particular blame attributions and organizes
"proper" responses such as sympathy or righteous indignation.
Similarly, Best (1997) argued that processes attendant in the
construction of victims include a simultaneous designation of
1
Not only have social critics presented female victims of gender-based crimes as weak and
powerless, legal scholars have argued that legal doctrine uses victim powerlessness as a standard
for adjudicating the guilt or innocence of women charged with attacking their abusers (see
Mahoney 1991, 1994).
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Victim Feminism/Victim Activism 265
perpetrator with absolution of victim responsibility (Best 1997).
Moreover, Best contended that victimization claims carry an
imperative against challenging victim status. That is, under the
ideology of victimization there exists a shared understanding
that the claims to victim status must always be respected, never
disputed.
2
Although Best contended that victims of sexual viol-
ence are "protected by sympathetic laws" and that there exists
both an "ideological prohibition against challenging victims'
claims" (p. 16) he provided no evidence for these claims.
3
By
contrast, many researchers (Goodman, Koss, and Russo 1993;
Janoff-Bulman 1992; Fairstein 1993; see also Alcoff and Gray
1993) have singled out female rape victims as a group that
receives an inordinate amount of victim blaming, perpetuated
by cultural myths.
A second important feature of victimization is that it is conse-
quential. Not only do victimizing experiences spawn long-term,
often negative consequences (Best 1997), but a by-product of
victimization is a totalizing designation of the victim as helpless
or incompetent (Holstein and Miller 1990). To a certain degree,
"'victimizing' a person 'dis-ables' that person to the extent that
victim status appropriates one's personal identity as a com-
petent efficacious actor" (P. 119). Victim status may become the
lens through which others comprehend the victim's behavior.
Third, under an ideology of victimization, the label of victim
carries undesirable connotations (Best 1997), including implica-
tions of powerlessness and passivity.
In short, the construction of victimhood is argued to entail a
deflection of responsibility by the victim (Holstein and Miller
1990), as well as creating negative long-term consequences for
the victim. Moreover, the victim title is positioned as negative.
2
Best (1997) seemed to suggest that because victim status is putatively a protected status, it
may be something that people seek. Others have suggested that because being identified as a
victim (by oneself and others) is aversive, victims seek strategies for minimizing their victim-
ization (Janoff-Bulman 1992; Kelly 1988; Herman 1992; Frankl 1963).
3
If it is currently unacceptable to challenge victim claims, as Best (1997) contended, it is the
result of rape law reform efforts, which have only reached fruition in the past 25 years. Before
1974, legal proof of rape required corroboration by a third party, the reading of cautionary
instructions to a jury that rape is a charge that is easy to make and difficult to prove, and, in
states like New York, evidence of utmost resistance by the victim (making rape the only crime in
which the victim was required to be injured twice; see Spohn and Horney 1992; Estrich 1986).
With rape, victim-blaming has been historically structured into the law. Best's assertion that
victim status confers exculpation for blame is unfounded in the case of sexual violence.
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266 D. McCaffrey
As such, the victim discourse is posited as the "public articu-
lation of injury and innocence" (P. 105). Although these scholars
have sought to flesh out the features of the ideology of victim-
ization, "victimhood" remains a contested category.
THE DEBATE OVER VICTIM FEMINISM
In the past several years, critics from diverse fields have
emerged to contest a move in feminism toward what they call
victim feminism. Although the critiques of victim feminism
embody a range of issues, including feminist philosophy, strat-
egy, and political agenda, much of the discourse around victim
feminism has to do with the criticism of the feminist anti-
violence movement and representations of victimhood (Wolf
1993; Roiphe 1993; Paglia 1994; hooks 1984; Morgenson 1992;
Leo 1992; Hughes 1992; see also Best 1997).
Perhaps the two most vociferous opponents of victim femi-
nism are Katie Roiphe (1993) and Camille Paglia (1994). Both have
depicted claims of rape as a device for pampered White college
students to get attention, feel "oppressed" or valued. If the goal
of anti-sexual violence activities like Take Back the Night
4
is to
empower and bolster the self-esteem of women victims, these
activities are said to be counterproductive (Roiphe 1993). Instead
of empowering women, protest activities such as Take Back the
Night reinforce women's vulnerability by celebrating their vic-
timhood. And the celebration of victimhood cannot lead to
strength. Paglia and Roiphe objected to the preoccupation of
victim feminism with feelings of victimhood and oppression,
arguing that the women who promote victim feminism are not
only legally free and protected by the law but are among the
most privileged women in the United States.
Another commentator whose work has been central in the
victim feminism discussion is Naomi Wolf. The major drawback
of victim feminism, for Wolf (1993), is the structuring of one's
identity around victimhood. For Wolf, the feminist antiviolence
4
Take Back the Night began in Europe in the early 1970s and has since been adopted as an
annual protest activity in thousands of U.S. communities. Though each Take Back the Night may
differ, most are characterized by speakouts against sexual violence, as well a nighttime march
signifying the impingement of the threat of assault on women's physical mobility (hence partici-
pants are "taking back the night" that has been taken from them). An important component to
many Take Back the Night rallies is testimonials from people who have been sexually victimized.
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Victim Feminism/Victim Activism 267
movement is ensconced in a culture of self-abnegation, fixated
on suffering, while having jettisoned earlier patterns in women's
movements of celebrating or encouraging women's success. In
Wolf's account of victim feminist culture, victimhood is central
to identity, but feeling strong and capable is discouraged. But it
is through this identity of victimhood that victims in the move-
ment claim power.
Similar to Wolf (1993), bell hooks (1994) decried bonding
around victimhood as the cement holding the (White) feminist
antiviolence movement together. Yet, in contrast to Wolf, who
viewed the structuring of identity around victimhood as prob-
lematic insofar as it prevents positive action in the movement,
hooks detected a camouflaged agenda designed to maintain
White supremacy. In adopting victim as identity, White femi-
nists in the antiviolence movement conceal a strategy to main-
tain the image that, because they have been sexually assaulted
by men, they are beyond reproach in any domain. In other
words, in privileging male violence toward women as a site of
analysis, anti-sexual violence feminists effectively evade the
issue of women as oppressors and abusers.
Moreover, hooks (1984), like other critics, noted that it is the
most privileged women who seem to most readily embrace
victim identities. Ironically, the ability to claim victimhood as
identity is a function of a privileged structural location:
"Women who are exploited and oppressed daily cannot afford
to relinquish the belief that they exercise some measure of
control, however relative, over their lives" (hooks 1984:45). For
hooks, victim-as-identity is suspect, for it is not a viable option
for nonprivileged women.
5
"Seek[ing] power through an identity of powerlessness" (Wolf
1993:135) is at the heart of the problem of victim feminism for
these critics. These critics then challenge the legitimacy of the
powerless victim, because, they argue, as educated and often
class-privileged women, these "victims" are in the best position
to exercise political and social power. By glamorizing victim-
hood, highlighting one's victim status, and consequently casting
women as perpetually weak, the critics have argued that victim
feminist activities like Take Back the Night are disempowering
5
Extrapolated, hooks's (1984) comments can partially account for the underrepresentation
of women of color and poorer women in the feminist antiviolence movement. If women who are
exploited and oppressed by race and/or class resist internalizing victim status, a movement that
is purportedly predicted on the bonding of women as victims may hold little appeal.
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268 D. McCaffrey
and counterproductive for women. It is notable that hooks
(1984) alone provided a developed account of the racial and
class politics undergirding many aspects of the feminist anti-
sexual violence movement.
Claims forwarded by constructionists and critics of victim
feminism provide accounts of victimhood and victim identity.
However, theoretical debates around power also illuminate this
issue and attend to aspects of victimhood that are neglected by
constructionists and critics of victim feminism.
POWER
At the same time that constructionists and critics have raised
concerns about representations of power in victimhood, post-
modern theorists have broken new ground in analyzing the
workings of power (Foucault 1973, 1978, 1979, 1980; Butler 1990;
see also Wartenberg 1991, 1992; Sawicki 1991; Seidman 1994).
In his genealogies of scientific discourses and various social insti-
tutions, Foucault's work has inaugurated a new dimension to
conceptualizations of the workings of power. Put most simply,
for Foucault, power is that which produces as well as negates.
Foucault (1973, 1978, 1979, 1980) broke from traditional con-
ceptualizations of power, dubbed a juridical or juridico-
discursive model of power, by attending to the operation of
power relationships at the micro level of society.
6
Under a
juridical model, power is assumed to be possessed by individuals
or groups of people. By extension, power is exercised as repress-
ion, or "power against," according to a juridical framing of
power. Instead of viewing power as a thing to be possessed,
Foucault contended that power is exercised. And power, for
Foucault, is not so much exercised in the service of repression,
but rather when power is exercised, it is productive. Specifically,
Foucault and other postmodernists attend to the productive
power of discourse in the constitution of subjects and identities.
As human subjectivity is constituted through discourse, social
actors are never apart from power or domination. For Foucault
(1973, 1978, 1979, 1980), social domination is enacted through
6
In crafting competing versions of power and its operations, postmodern theorists generally
do not deny that the traditional model of power expresses one form that power may take.
Rather, they seek to expand our understanding of the ways in which power is exercised and
produced, particularly through discourse.
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Victim Feminism/Victim Activism 269
discourse and knowledge. Power simultaneously constitutes and
represses such that "the same processes that form the individual
as a 'subject' of consciousness also form that individual as 'sub-
jected' to power" (Wartenberg 1991:159). Power permeates all
social relationships by constituting human beings. As such,
power is not merely a possession of the powerful.
In arguing against a static view of social power, Foucault's
(1978, 1979, 1980) theorizing on power moves beyond a simplis-
tic equation of power with overt repression. In modern society,
disciplinary power is fluid and is used to create social divisions
between, for instance, the sane and the mad and between the
noncriminal and the criminal. Power is used to create discourses
through which human beings become subjects. The production
of various subjects then legitimates the intervention by
"experts" with authoritative knowledge. Social control is
enacted through experts' efforts at normalizing various subjects
(i.e., criminals, sexual deviants).
Yet, within the context of disciplinary domination, there is
agency. For Foucault 1980, resistance accompanies power.
Resistance is equated with altering the terrain of power, with
subjects reconstituting themselves and by extension reconstitut-
ing power relations. Thus, the power to produce subjects and
reconfigure subjectivities harbors a transformative potential in
its ability to reconstitute rather than merely reproduce human
beings and social relations.
Postmodern sketches of power are useful in examining the
debate around victim feminism and victim activism. Because
postmodern views on power attend to the power inherent in
language and discourse, this model can be used to flesh out the
intricacies of the debate. Although competing representations of
victimhood are forwarded by the critics of victim feminism and
by the women interviewed for this study, both rely on juridical
notions of power, where power is possessed and used to domi-
nate.
The critics examined here raise some interesting questions
that can be addressed empirically. For example, for movement
participants who have been sexually victimized, is "victim of
violence" a salient and central aspect of their identity? Does
participation in the feminist antiviolence movement lead
women to feel more like victims? What benefits do victim-
activists gain from their participation? What are their motiva-
tions for participation? Additionally, what previously neglected
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270 D. McCaffrey
aspects of power are evident in alternate constructions of "vic-
timhood" or activism?
METHODS
Data were drawn from 20 semistructured interviews with
women who have been sexually abused or assaulted and who
are also anti-sexual violence activists. Women were recruited
for participation in this study through several paths. Most
women responded to my requests for participants that were
posted on sexual-violence-related web sites or through flyers
posted in the community where I live. Other women were
recruited through my social networks or through snowball sam-
pling. The racial/ethnic makeup of the sample was predomi-
nantly White, though African American women and Latinas
were represented.
7
The age of the sample ranged from late
teens to mid-50s. Educationally, 3 of the women were high
school graduates, 4 were either college students or had attend-
ed college at some point, 6 held a bachelor's degree, and 7 were
working toward advanced degrees.
Interview topics explored the effects of sexual violence on the
women's lives and how they perceived themselves in terms of
their experiences with sexual violence. In addition, participants
were asked to describe their history of antiviolence activism, as
well as their motivation for activism and the meanings they
assigned to it.
The majority of the sample has been involved in organizing
and speaking at Take Back the Night events. Other women were
involved in organizations that addressed the particular type of
assault or abuse they experienced, from date rape to abuse by
educators, therapists, or family members. A few women in the
sample were active with rape crisis programs in their com-
munities. Through their involvement in organizations, the
women in the sample had spoken publicly about their experi-
ences. Thus, activists were involved in activities ranging from
public speaking to publishing newsletters, to running their own
7
That the sample for this study consisted largely of White women offers some support for
hooks's (1984) contention that a movement organized around sexual victimization where experi-
ences of violence become central to one's identity may resonate more with White women than
with women of color. It may also reflect the tendency of Whites to respond to requests for
participation in social science research.
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Victim Feminism/Victim Activism 271
sexual-violence-related organizations, to answering rape crisis
hotlines, to reforming legislation.
Although the alarm over victim feminism and victim-as-iden-
tity has received much attention, the critics' theoretical con-
structions of victim identity have lacked empirical grounding in
accounts of identity. As a result, critical representations fail to
capture the complexity and nuance behind the identities of
women who have been sexually victimized. Data presented here
inform the debate.
DE FACTO SURVIVOR VERSUS SURVIVOR AS AN
EARNED STATUS
In examining the victim feminism controversy, an issue nearly
overlooked entirely by the critics is the distinction between
victim and survivor made by many women who have experi-
enced sexual violence. Almost exclusively, the women in the
sample identified themselves as survivors, but they forwarded
varying conceptualizations of this identifier.
For a portion of the sample, survivorship entailed emerging
from the event alive. Further, under this conceptualization, living
through the abuse or assault conveyed inherent strength and
skill, qualities attributed to the survivor regardless of her sub-
sequent behavior. In response to the question "What does 'sur-
vivor' mean for you?" one woman stated, "If you're walking,
talking, and breathing, I think that's damn good." Other women
echoed similar sentiments. A woman in her 30s who experi-
enced a physically violent attempted rape stated,
I'm a survivor. You're a victim if you die, if you don't make it
out. . . . But, if you're around it means you did exactly what was
the right thing to do. If you're ever around to think about it and
talk about it and live with the memory, you're a survivor.
Whereas one conceptualization of survivor ascribes that
status to any woman who has experienced sexual violence and
is alive to talk about it, other women viewed survivor as an
earned status. For them, survivor status is achieved when one
8
Two women were ambivalent about claiming the status of survivor for themselves because
they reserved that distinction for women who had been abused or assaulted in a physically
violent way. Thus, the preferred identifier for these two women included neither victim nor
survivor. Instead, "I was raped" and "I was sexually abused as a child" were the identifiers that
these women used.
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272 D. McCaffrey
discontinues an established pattern of unhealthy behavior,
including self-blame. One woman who had endured years of
childhood sexual abuse commented, "I see the role as a victim
as allowing it to happen, allowing the pattern to go on and on
and on. And as a survivor... I can choose to stop that. I don't
have to stay there. I don't have to continue." For other women,
shedding the victim role and taking on the status of survivor not
only entailed the woman's taking steps to become more assert-
ive, particularly in relationship choices, but also required her to
discontinue self-blame and shame. For one woman in her 50s
who had experienced multiple forms of abuse and assault
throughout childhood and adulthood,
You're a victim if you . . . blame yourself in any way, shape or
form . . . [because] the perpetrator is 100% wrong. . . . A sur-
vivor is kind of on top of the situation. And, I'm not there yet,
but I've got one foot in the survivor kind of realm, where I'm not
being abused, not opening myself up to any kind of relationship
or any kind of abuse.
Under the survivor-as-eamed-status configuration, each woman
decides for herself whether and when she becomes a survivor. A
woman can continue to be a victim long after the abuse or
assault ends. From this vantage point, victims are those who
blame themselves, carry shame, or continue to let others victim-
ize them.
None of the women interviewed wished to be labeled a
victim of sexual abuse or assault. For these women, the term
victim was diminishing because it connoted being helpless and
elicited pity, as well as indicating "a position of vulnerability, and
a position of weakness." Similarly, others identified themselves
as victims only when they were coping with the negative
sequelae of sexual violence: "When I was going through post-
traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety attacks, and severe
depression, and gaining 20 pounds, that's when I identified as a
victim."
Apart from the distinctions women made between de facto
survivor status and earned survivor status, a theme present in all
definitions was positive connotations, particularly that of
strength and perseverance. Negative qualities attending the
victim label, which include helplessness, passivity, and an inabil-
ity to cope with daily life (Holstein and Miller 1990; see also
Barry 1979), are undesirable. Thus, in contrast to charges by
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critics of victim feminism that victim activists eschew the cele-
bration of strength and victory in favor of a preoccupation with
victimhood and oppression, evidence presented here suggests
that the women strive to minimize feelings of weakness and
vulnerability by emphasizing strength and agency in their defini-
tion of survivorship.
Data from my sample indicate an internalization of the nega-
tive connotations of victimhood, as well as a disavowal and
renegotiation of them. This disavowal and renegotiation of
victim status exhibits agency in two ways. First, in and of itself,
forwarding an alternate construction of victim demonstrates an
agency that is inconsistent with the characteristics attributed to
victims, namely passivity. Second, the women interviewed for
this study differentiated themselves from prototypical victims by
taking responsibility for ending dysfunctional patterns in their
lives, desisting in self-blame, and focusing on emerging from a
traumatic event alive.
ACCENTUATING THE POSITIVE
Holstein and Miller (1990) contended that a totalizing exoner-
ation from responsibility may attend victim status, as well as a
tendency by observers to make a stable attribution of helpless-
ness and passivity to victims. Similarly, for the critics, sexual viol-
ence victims and victim-activists are said to fixate on feelings of
weakness, victimhood, and suffering. By contrast, the women in
this sample consistently described positive aspects to the after-
math of their experiences of sexual violence. Though they were
careful to point out that being victimized was not positive, they
perceived subsequent positive consequences in their lives. One
young woman who had been raped twice during her teens
commented,
I know that I have become a lot stronger and I guess you could
say more aware or tuned in to other people's feelings. I have
learned a lot about myself and my strengths and weaknesses.
. . . I have bad days, but most of the time I look at the positive
things I can take out of the situation and try to apply them to
everything I can do. I know being negative will only allow the
rapists to win again and again.
Typically, the women spoke of a personal transformation pre-
cipitated by the abuse or assault that took the form of greater
personal strength, an increased awareness of social processes,
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274 D. McCaffrey
and also a greater sensitivity to other women who have been
assaulted. In addition to benefiting from greater self-awareness
and a sense of personal strength from surviving sexual violence,
many described their activism as an important outcome.
Contrary to the claims that women who have been assaulted
or abused portray themselves as self-pitying victims, burdened
by their own troubles, the women in this sample were not pre-
occupied with self-pity, nor did they seek attention through vic-
timhood. In fact, many actively resisted the victim role as they
saw it:
I don't feel like I've processed it like "poor [me], poor [me]" at
all. But, I look at it in a larger context of patriarchy, power, and
control, and a lot of other issues. Notthis is a personal issue,
let's throw me a tea partykind of context.
The picture that emerges from these statements is that of
women who, when faced with adversity, do not dwell on the
negative aspects of victimization but rather emerge with what
one woman dubbed "warrior marks." Although the critics have
forwarded an image of activists as those who glamorize victim-
hood, celebrate suffering, and invent cases of sexual violence in
order to feel oppressed, data suggest the opposite.
STRENGTH IN ACTIVISM: PERSONAL AND
POLITICAL
Most of the women interviewed had spoken publicly about
their experiences, often at Take Back the Night rallies, but also in
high schools and colleges, on the news, and on the radio. The
argument presented by many victim feminist critics is that those
women who give public testimonials about their experiences of
sexual violence are "whiners" or attention-seekers. For the
women in this sample, speaking publicly provided satisfaction.
9
In particular, for a number of women, the act of telling their
story was intrinsically empowering. According to one woman,
9
Three women mentioned that they did not feel particularly empowered by speaking pub-
licly. For them, there was a sense of uneasiness that accompanied the knowledge that they
would be publicly identified as a victim after speaking out. However, these women all stated that
although they did not feel empowered at the time they spoke out, in retrospect they were glad
they gave their testimonial. Moreover, all stated that they had subsequently realized that they
had not been singled out and publicly stigmatized as victims. This response is interesting in light
of the charges from critics that women who speak publicly want attention as victims and seek
public pity. Evidence from my sample does not bear out this assertion.
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Victim Feminism/Victim Activism 275
It's definitely empowering! People need to know that rape
victims aren't just statistics before they can even begin to under-
stand what rape is, so I feel it is necessary to communicate. I
also feel that keeping what happened inside will only allow the
rapists to continue raping me [mentally] and by taking charge
and moving on I can finally take back some of the power I lost
to them.
Additionally, one woman who was sexually abused for the
majority of her childhood noted that "when I share my story it
empowers me. [I: How come?] Just the act of not keeping it a
secret anymore is a big deal." The underlying theme in these
women's comments is that of empowerment through the act of
telling their stories. For many, the empowerment is derived from
a sense of revealing a long-held secret. Particularly in cases of
child sexual abuse, secrecy is a state imposed by the offender(s)
and often imposed through threats to the child (Herman 1992).
Maintaining the secret of sexual abuse not only is an issue of
shame or fear of stigma, but may also be experienced as collu-
sion with the offender(s). Thus, the act of publicly revealing that
secret can be liberating and empowering for the activists. If the
claims that victim status carries exoneration from blame (Best
1997; Holstein and Miller 1990) and exemption from disbelief
(Best 1997) were valid, there would be no need for secrecy or
shame.
10
In addition to the empowerment derived from letting go of a
secret, other activists spoke of the sense of empowerment
gained from educating others. Several women stated that the
intrinsic empowerment of telling their story was initially present
but had simultaneously waned and been transformed into a
sense of satisfaction in raising the awareness of others through
their story. For example, one woman who was sexually abused
by her father throughout her childhood stated,
But do I tell them because I want them to know about my
abuse? Not that I want them to know about the abuse as much
as I want them to be aware that abuse exists and shouldn't. I
think that's my drive. . . . I want people to know that when you
do this to a child, that child doesn't just suffer at that moment.
10
For instance, one woman in my sample was ostracized from her peer group after report-
ing to the police that she had been raped by a member of that peer group. Her peers accused
her of lying and deliberately trying to divide the group.
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276 D. McCaffrey
That child suffers until the day they die. And it's not fair. That's
the whole bottom thing of why I talk about it.
For this group of women, the motivation in speaking is not so
much to relieve the burden of secrecy as to effect change in the
larger social structure. That the activists in this sample deliber-
ately parlayed their experiences into a political tool speaks to
their commitment to consciousness raising rather than
attention-seeking. Indeed, one of the activists speaks frequently
at colleges and high schools across the country. Not only does
she speak, but she analyzes policies, direct services, and preven-
tion programs that each school has in place, serving as a consul-
tant for improving institutional responses to the issue of sexual
violence.
On the surface, victim activism bears a striking resemblance
to Brown's (1991) work on "professional ex-es," individuals with
former food and substance addictions who "exit a deviant
career (p. 219)" by becoming professional counselors for similar
others. Similarities between sexual violence victim-activists and
professional ex-addicts include that both view recovery as a
long process and that helping others is a component of individ-
ual healing.
On further examination, however, some important differences
emerge. First, Brown's (1991) professional ex-es abandoned pre-
vious careers that were deemed "mundane and polluting (p.
226)" in favor of professional counseling careers. In my sample
of 20 sexual violence victim-activists, only 6 derived their major
source of income from professional activist work. The remaining
14 were unpaid volunteer activists. Therefore, in this sample,
activism does not appear to be an explicit occupational strat-
egy. Furthermore, counseling professionals are generally not
included under the heading of activist.
Perhaps the core difference is that Brown's (1991) ex-es were
involved in substance abuse and eating disorders, activities that
are constructed as more blameworthy or chosen. Here, the
definition of victim is germane. Victim status is generally not
conferred on substance abusers and people with eating dis-
orders, whereas victim status is generally granted for those who
have experienced sexual violence.
11
Rather than being viewed
as morally deviant, or having a deviant identity, the trajectory of
11
Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between eating disorders and experiences of
sexual violence (Benson 1997; Andrews 1997).
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Victim Feminism/Victim Activism 277
sexual violence victim-activists is more consistent with the liter-
ature on social psychological trauma and recovery (Herman
1992; Janoff-Bulman 1992; see also Weed 1990).
In examining the thoughts and experiences of women who
have been sexually victimized, what emerges is a picture of
women who focus on what they view as the positive aspects of
surviving sexual violence: personal strength and empowerment
through activism. Though they are cognizant of the manifold
ways that sexual violence has altered them, they are not con-
sumed in a culture of self-abnegation that glorifies martyrdom
and suffering. Nor do they report pursuing activism as a means
for shedding a deviant stigmatized identity. If anything, speaking
publicly about one's victimization exposes one to the possibility
of further censure.
POWER: POSTMODERN APPLICATIONS
In an effort to address and incorporate the challenge that the
critics pose, an application of postmodern theorizing on power
is useful. Though empirical evidence presented here suggests
that victim-activists do not represent themselves as weak,
passive, or powerless, the issue of power is not fully resolved.
Under a postmodern model of power, it is not accurate to frame
the debate in terms of whether women who have been sexually
victimized do or do not have power. Again, the notion of pos-
session of power is more consistent with a juridical framing of
power than with a postmodern model of power. To argue that
victims are powerless, weak, and helpless presupposes that
power can be possessed and that it is not possessed by sexual
violence victims. In a similar vein, the activists in this sample
described their activism and their survivor identities as paths for
reclaiming power that has been taken from them through
victimization. Constructions of victim and survivor are consis-
tent with a juridical framing of power because both cast power
as an entity to be possessed, withdrawn, or denied.
Applying postmodern views of power brings into relief the
ways constructions of both victimhood and survival are replete
with power. Because power is infused in discourse, discourse is
never apart from power. One woman in the sample articulated
the imbrication of discourse and experience in her account of
childhood sexual abuse:
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278 D. McCaffrey
In some ways sexual abuse is an ongoing experience, because
even though the physical [aspect] may have stopped, it con-
tinues to reverberate. And, having some political exposure and
being able to redefine it as something that is social, and is some-
thing that emerges out of the culture in which we live, it allowed
me to reexperience it in a different way.
Thus, "experience" and the identities formulated in response are
mediated by the various discursive constructions that are avail-
able to interpret events in our lives. Regardless of whether
women view themselves as empowered and strong survivors or
as stuck in a victim role where they lack agency, each of these
is a function of the power that is inseparable from discourse.
Thus, both the subject positions of victim or survivor must be
understood as an effect of power rather than as lacking or pos-
sessing power, respectively.
Again, under a postmodern model of power, an important site
for the exercise of power is discourse. To comprehend power in
this manner is to acknowledge that power can operate as a
productive or generative force, not merely in the form of rep-
ression. Additionally, Foucault (1978) argued that "discourse can
be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a stum-
bling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an
opposing strategy" (p. 101). Before the inception of the feminist
antiviolence movement of the 1970s, the dominant discourse
pathologized victims of sexual violence as "damaged goods,"
promiscuous, or essentially objects of abuse (Russell 1982; Barry
1979; Warshaw 1988). An illustration of how discourse can be a
point of resistance is the movement's effort to redefine what it
means to be victimized by sexual violence. Challenging each
element of the dominant discursive constructions of sexual viol-
ence victims, feminist activists reconfigured victim into survivor.
The construction of survivor attends to the ways that abused
and assaulted women use personal strengths to withstand
abusive experiences and carry on with their lives (Kelly 1988). It
is notable that this construction of survivor has been internal-
ized to a significant degree by the women I interviewed.
It appears, then, that women who have experienced sexual
violence reposition themselves in the discursive milieu. I read
this as an act of agency, an effort to construct powerful iden-
tities. Although victim status is said to elicit responses such as
pity or sympathy, survivor constructions seem designed to
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evoke respect or admiration. Survivor rhetorically establishes
that one has been victimized, yet also implies that one should
be recognized for overcoming the often debilitating effects of
sexual victimization. The women in this sample used the power
of discourse to transform a stigmatized identity, victim, into a
valorized self-definition, survivor.
Not only does power operate on the interpersonal level, but
there is a reciprocal relationship between the individual and
institutional levels. The deployment of a transgressive survivor
discourse also effects institutional change.
12
In the past decade,
"survivor therapy" has been created by drawing from both
trauma theories and feminist therapeutic principles (Walker
1994). By emphasizing personal strength and positive coping
strategies, survivor therapy seeks to heal those who have been
victimized. Additionally, survivor therapy recognizes "the
gender-based impact of the trauma within the woman's socio-
political, cultural, and economic context, emphasizing respect
for all women who have been abused" (P. 285). The advent of
survivor therapy marks the interplay between interpersonal and
institutional diffusion of the survivor construction. This inter-
play militates against hegemonic discourses that deny the extent
of sexual violence (or worse, legitimate it) and silence those
affected by it. The discursive terrain is marked by sufficient inde-
terminacy that both dominant and victim discourses can be dis-
turbed through the deployment of the survivor construction.
Though there exists a subversive potential to a survivor
identity, it is not inherently liberatory. Another aspect to Fou-
cault's concept of power as a productive force is its normalizing
effects. Recall that, for Foucault (1978), social identities rooted in
the rise of human sciences can function as social control
mechanisms through the process of normalization. Even those
identities crafted in the name of resistance can produce normal-
izing effects. In response to negative constructions of sexual viol-
ence victims, the feminist antiviolence movement as well as
feminists in the helping professions have deployed an alternative
discourse about victim status, reconfigured as survival. Though
12
It is difficult to decisively locate the origins of the survivor construct. It appears to have
emerged from both feminist politics (Barry 1979) and feminist therapy (Cooper-White 1990;
Walker 1985).
13
The creation of survivor therapy is consistent with Best's (1997) observations about the
victim industry. However, new therapeutic techniques for those affected by violence should not
be framed as inherently negative or suspect.
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280 D. McCaffrey
this was a strategy for resisting the dominant discourse on
victims, and most recently the backlash to the movement, the
identity of survivor also normalizes.
First, in the case of women who have experienced sexual viol-
ence, there is suggestion of an appropriate way to experience
victimhoodwhich entails not being a victim but rather being a
survivor. Specifically, there exists an expectation that there is
something positive to be gained from the negative experience of
abuse or assault. This construction effects its own normalizing
tendencies that may produce new marginalizations and new
exclusions among women who have experienced sexual viol-
ence. For instance, women who do not perceive their experi-
ences of sexual violence as life altering may be marginalized by
the survivor discourse. Similarly, women who do not perceive
positive outcomes from their experiences may also be margin-
alized or, worse yet, be stigmatized as victims. So, even a dis-
course that is deployed with transgressive intent may
marginalize.
Second, Alcoff and Gray (1993) discussed the danger of an
emergent "coercive imperative" for survivors to speak out, if
giving testimonials is positioned as an essential ingredient for
recovery in the survivor discourse. Thus, although the power
inherent in speaking out and breaking the silence can be appro-
priated as a ground for resistance, it may also produce new
dominations.
A third cautionary note is the issue of who is reconfiguring
the discourse and how various subjects are positioned in rela-
tion to that discourse. Many of the critics of victim feminism,
including hooks, Paglia, and Roiphe, have noted that the lead-
ership of and many activists in the antiviolence movement are,
for the most part, White women who are privileged by class and
education. Hence we must question who is structurally posi-
tioned to engage in resistance through the deployment of the
survivor construction (as well as other movement strategies).
Additionally, the survivor discourse does not currently incorpor-
ate a juxtaposition of male dominance with other forms of
oppression based on sexuality, class, race, or nationality.
A final cautionary note involves acknowledgment of how
even a resisting discourse may be co-opted by the dominant
discourse. For instance, Alcoff and Gray (1993) have suggested
that there is a voyeuristic element to survivor testimonials
where, particularly in TV talk show testimonials, there is an inap-
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Victim Feminism/Victim Activism 281
propriate emphasis on the details of the abuse, which are corn-
modified for the consumption of the audience. The voyeurism
accompanying survivor speak-outs undercuts the subversive
character of the speech, resulting in a loss of the transgressive
or subversive potential of the challenging discourse.
In addition to voyeurism, co-optation may be realized
through the recuperation of the resisting survivor discourse by
the dominant discourse. Because discourse is malleable and
characterized by indeterminacy, a resisting survivor discourse is
not inherently transgressive, regardless of the aim. Thus, through
recuperation, dominant discourses regain "their hegemonic
position even when disruptive speech is not silenced by sub-
suming it within the framework of the discourse in such a way
that it is disempowered and no longer disruptive" (Alcoff and
Gray 1993:68). For instance, because much of the survivor dis-
course emphasizes personal strength and healing, attention can
be deflected from the structural supports for sexual violence.
Additionally, Louise Armstrong (1994) argued that the general
issue of childhood sexual abuse, particularly incest, has been
hijacked from the realm of feminist social change politics and
reduced to a medicalized and psychologized personal dis-
order.
14
CONCLUSION
Postmodern sketches of the productive capacity of power
help illuminate the debate surrounding victim feminism and
victim activism. In this article, I have argued that conceptualiz-
ing victim or survivor identities as being devoid of power or
possessing power, respectively, deflects attention from the
power's productive character and normalizing effects.
Because of the significance of the debate for the anti-sexual
violence movement and for the larger feminist movement, there
are many important areas that could be explored in future
research. Within the field of social movements, issues of identity
have increasingly been recognized as central in mobilization.
Future research should flesh out the implications of the particu-
lar construction of survivor as a collective identity for move-
ment strategy and mobilization. For instance, is there a
14
This parallels Best's (1997) argument about the dangers of the burgeoning victim industry
but differs in that Best argued that the victim/survivor discourse is the dominant discourse,
whereas Armstrong (1994) aligned the survivor discourse with a resistant feminist politic.
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282 D. McCaffrey
normative expectation among survivors that being a survivor
entails activism? In addition, research should focus on the devel-
opment of a collective identity within the anti-sexual violence
movement. In particular, future work should explore when and
how such an identity develops, if at all.
In addition, issues of the underrepresentation of women of
color in the feminist antiviolence movement deserve empirical
attention. Future research should explore the paths through
which women of color who have been sexually victimized
become involved in anti-sexual violence work and whether
important philosophical or structural differences exist between
those activists and women of color who have been victimized
and are not involved in activist work. Bearing in mind hooks's
(1984) contention that it is the most privileged of women who
readily adopt a victim identity, such work should examine the
relationship between the current survivor discourse and experi-
ences and interpretation of women of color from varying class
backgrounds.
Finally, following Alcoff and Gray (1993), in formulating a
viable political strategy in the movement against sexual viol-
ence, the mere incitement to speak about abusive experiences
renders survivors and the survivor discourse susceptible to
recuperation by the dominant discourse. Instead, attention
should be devoted to devising strategies for maintaining auton-
omy from expert interpretation of experiences of sexual viol-
ence, as well as a reflexive eye toward the normalizing and
disciplining effects of the discourse.
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