Hypatia 16.2 (2001) 93-97
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Violence Against Women: Philosophical Perspectives
Violence Against Women: Philosophical Perspectives. Edited by Stanley G. French, Wanda Teays, and Laura M. Purdy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
This diverse and wide-ranging collection of essays begins with a discussion of the complexity of surviving rape and ends with a discussion of the complexities of preventing and resisting rape. Readers of this volume might use the challenges issued by these essays as touchstones for discussing and evaluating the arguments of the others. Susan Brison brings her personal experience of [End Page 93] surviving rape to bear on questions of identity and social agency. The final essay in the volume, by Nadya Burton, focuses on classic texts on violence against women to show how they may, through an emphasis on fear and victimization, fail in their ostensible commitments to empowering women. Burton suggests we judge anti-violence scholarship and activism by the following criteria: "does it promote women's strengths, reduce our fears, increase our mobility and freedoms, and ultimately, does it serve to improve the quality of our lives?" (200).
I would offer some additional challenges. Given that much of the anti-violence literature Burton examines assumes a sisterhood among women to emerge from their status as potential victims of sexual assault, we might also ask: does anti-violence scholarship and activism account for women's differences or obscure those differences in the interest of solidarity? Further, the work included in this volume draws attention to the fact that studies of violence against women may include rape, harassment, and/or battery in women's everyday lives, and economic policy, organized warfare, globalization, and issues pertaining to sexual health. As the movement against violence against women becomes increasingly internationalized, how might historical specificity and perspective be taken into account in judging sexualized and gendered social practices?
The essays in this volume rely on radically revised versions of essentially liberal philosophical concepts. They emphasize the ethical imperatives of mutuality, respect for persons, physical integrity, and women's rights as human rights as the a prioris of gender and sexual justice. This may strike some as naive in a world where cultural sexual and gender norms are so infused with violence and the assumption of male prerogative. However, essays in this collection can inspire affirmative discussion about critical philosophical principles we might use to understand and judge sexual practices.
Brison's essay opens the first section with a description of her experience as a survivor of an extremely violent rape. Her essay reminds us that while getting caught may make a difference for a rapist, the actual event does not radically affect his sense of self. The victim of rape, however, is left to cope with a radically altered sense of self. Brison reflects on this effect of sexual violence and on the difficulty of making friends, family, and colleagues understand that even while the survivor struggles to regain a semblance of normalcy, everything is necessarily different after a sexual assault.
Patricia Kazan's piece on the problem of consent illuminates the difficulties in accounting for how we signal consent--attitutudinally and performatively--as we adjudicate sexual assault cases. Catharine MacKinnon's essay also speaks to issues of sexual assault. Her piece is a reprint of an address she gave to the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. MacKinnon's uncompromising critique of human rights campaigns that systematically leave women as women off of their agendas draws out the implications of those exclusions for perpetuating the normality of rape as a weapon of war. [End Page 94]
Section II addresses domestic violence but extends the meaning of that familiar phrase to women's experiences across cultures. While in the United States the phrase immediately conjures up the image of a man beating his wife or lover, the essays on violence against women in Bangladesh and African nations make clear that, in fact, women face a complex variety of threats stemming from the entrenched commitments of their communities to harmful sexualized and gendered practices. Roksana Nazneen describes her...