restricted access Translating Foucault: A Critique of Sexuality for Trauma Survivors
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Translating Foucault:
A Critique of Sexuality for Trauma Survivors

For many feminists working on sexual violence, Michel Foucault is not one of the most obvious allies, to say the least. His controversial statements on the legal status of rape and his seemingly casual treatment of what would widely be considered an incident of child sexual assault have made him an unlikely candidate for this position. In his work on sexuality in particular, Foucault's insistence that we critique the mechanisms of the perpetrator's institutionalization—rather than the perpetrator himself—is understandably troubling to those who are chiefly concerned with accountability for sexual violence and the effects of this violence on victims and survivors.1

While I agree that Foucault's treatment of sexual violence is troublesome and at times deeply problematic, I argue that Foucault's critique of sexuality does not require betraying our convictions about the damages caused by sexual violence. In fact, in challenging normative discourses of sex and sexuality, I suggest that Foucault unknowingly offers a promising framework for theorizing sexual trauma survival. To draw out the possibilities of this framework, I suggest a rereading, or translation, of Foucault's telling of the aforementioned assault case in The History of Sexuality, Volume I. Where the focus of Foucault's account is on the institutional treatment of the perpetrator, a farmhand named Charles-Joseph Jouy, my retelling aims to situate the child, Sophie Adam, within Foucault's critique. In doing so, I suggest two ways in which survivors are affected by normative discourses of sexuality. First, I argue that the knotting [End Page 69] together of sex and identity raises the stakes of naming acts of sexual violence by increasing the weight of identifying a perpetrator as a deviant and oneself as a victim or survivor. Second, I consider Foucault's critique of our concept of sex and suggest that the view of sex as a teleological event with a clear starting and ending point limits our ability to conceptualize sexual violence and survival as sometimes exceeding the language of events or disrupting linear notions of time. I suggest that situating survivors within Foucault's critical philosophy will allow us to more readily imagine the place of survivors within Foucault's positive philosophy (particularly as taken up in queer theory) and will help us to open up alternative modes and narratives of survival.

Situating My Reading: Foucauldian Feminist Writing On Sexual Violence

My rereading of the Jouy-Adam story builds on and contributes to emerging feminist work that aims to bring The History of Sexuality into discussions of sexual violence and survival in constructive ways. Recently, philosophers Chloë Taylor and Dianna Taylor have offered feminist readings of Foucault's treatment of the Jouy-Adam case that take seriously criticisms of Foucault's disregard of Sophie Adam while also demonstrating positive uses of these passages for feminist work on sexual violence. For her part, Chloe Taylor (2009) argues for the necessity of a “feminist-Foucauldian approach to sex crimes” (20). Reading The History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish together, she articulates an account of the ways in which modern conceptions of sexual identity function together with our current penal system to construct sex criminals and produce recidivism (14).2 In particular, C. Taylor notes that in focusing on “victims and potential offenders” and on stricter sentences for perpetrators, feminists have largely neglected questions about how to deal with sex offenders outside the prison system (5).3 Connecting her analysis to Angela Davis's critique of the prison and law enforcement as a primary response to sexual violence, C. Taylor advocates an approach that addresses both the damaging effects of sexual violence as well as the role of institutional responses to perpetrators in perpetuating and reproducing violence. Though my focus here will nonetheless be on the implications of Foucault's critique for survivors rather than for perpetrators, I agree with C. Taylor about the need for alternative responses to sexual violence.

Currently, Dianna Taylor is working on a project that outlines more directly the usefulness of Foucault's critique for victims and survivors of sexual violence. In a forthcoming essay, she argues that Foucault's...