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Hypatia 17.3 (2002) 257-264

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Victimization and Consent

Renee Heberle

New Versions of Victims: Feminists Struggle with the Concept. Edited by Sharon Lamb. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Consent: Sexual Rights and the Transformation of American Liberalism. By Pamela Haag. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.

In a number of popularly received books published during the last decade, feminism has been accused of constructing women as victims. The authors incorporate various admonitions to help feminism break this habit: Christina Hoff Sommers (1994) says that feminists should be content to have gained formal equality and struggle to enforce it rather than continuing to complain of women's plight; Naomi Wolf (1993) enjoins feminists to learn to use power; Camille Paglia (1994) and Katie Roiphe (1993) tell feminists to stop blaming men for women's individual sexual discontents or mistakes; and Rene Denfield (1995) asserts that feminists are actually sexual conservatives in disguise. Each author recommends that feminists acknowledge women's individual agency and encourages women to "take responsibility" for their particular situations. The most visible, though not particularly popular, defense against these claims insists on the "real" victimization of women and calls these criticisms "backlash" against accurate exposures of masculinist domination and violence.

A number of feminists, particularly those active in the movement against violence against women, have become increasingly critical of the terms of this debate as it has taken shape in popular discourse. There is a growing realization that neither "side" actually challenges the norms of liberal legalism and culture that perpetuate gender injustice and inequality. Feminist struggle aside, with respect to sexual subjectivity, liberal legalism and culture itself has historically offered women two options through which to identify as public figures: that of innocent sexual victim or that of rational (therefore probably guilty) sexual agent. These feminist scholars argue that this abstract liberal dualism of victim/agent, which informs feminist and nonfeminist public discourse, does not capture the complexities of sexuality and sexual experience and in fact inhibits progress toward achieving sexual freedom. [End Page 257]

The two texts discussed in this review essay, New Versions of Victims: Feminists Struggle with the Concept (1999) and Consent: Sexual Rights and the Transformation of American Liberalism (1999) contribute to the project of moving feminist theory and practice beyond reliance, implicit or explicit, on the abstract dualisms of liberal thinking. The authors in New Versions of Victims reconsider the category "victim" from several different perspectives. The "victims" in question are women and girls threatened by or experience sexual violence, abuse, or exploitation. In Consent Pamela Haag engages in a historical study of constructions of female sexuality and perceptions of women's agency in liberal legalism and culture. Haag shows how shifting assumptions about women's capacity to consent to sexual relations map onto and inform transformations in liberal thinking about subjectivity, economic rationality, and personal freedoms at the turn of the twentieth century.

In her introduction to New Versions of Victims, Sharon Lamb describes the project of the volume: "[W]e explore what the language of abuse and victimization and the practices associated with the recognition and treatment of abuse mean at this time in our culture" (3). Lamb further suggests that the collection will show how poststructuralism, understood as linguistic constructionism, can move feminism beyond the dualisms discussed above. In other words, the authors assume that the concepts of victim and agent are historically variable and contestable constructions, but do not suggest therefore, as backlash critics do, that the sexual victimization of women is unreal or a fabrication of a self-perpetuating feminist project.

The essays have several specific themes in common. The first is an interest in showing that particular concepts named and deployed by feminists in the anti-sexual violence movement are not simply names for true experiences, but can be understood as strategic representations with respect to the work they do in the political and cultural world. For example, Janice Haaken's analysis of the impact of The Courage to Heal, the founding text of the "recovered memory" movement, locates its power in the fact that child sexual abuse operated as a "conduit...