Vulnerability and victimization: Rethinking key concepts in feminist discourses on sexual violence
Vulnerability is both a vexing and vital concept for feminist theorizing about sexual violence and victimization. The concept is widely perceived as problematic because of the way it is associated both with femininity and femaleness and with dependency, weakness, susceptibility to harm, and violability. That is, vulnerability is thought to connote an inherent weakness and unavoidable openness to sexual victimization for women. Yet feminist thinkers also find the concept of vulnerability productive in light of how it decenters the purported autonomous subject, calls attention to the relational constitution of selves and to the reality of mutual and inevitable interdependence, and holds the promise of new kinds of ethical orientations. This essay argues that a conception of vulnerability is crucial for feminist theory and, specifically, feminist thought and activism concerning sexual violence, but this conception must be critically rethought, just as many feminist theorists have critically analyzed the ideas of victimization and the victim. Thus, it critically assesses potential problems with the concept and suggests an alternative conceptualization. One central feature of vulnerability that must be recognized is ambiguity. Reframing vulnerability with a focus on its ambiguity both offers a more accurate framework and enables a better understanding of the wrongs associated with rape and other types of sexual victimization. That is, the wrong inheres in exploiting and appropriating another’s ambiguous vulnerability.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Cunniff Gilson. (2016). Vulnerability and Victimization: Rethinking Key Concepts in Feminist Discourses on Sexual Violence. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(1), 71–98. https://doi.org/10.1086/686753