Queering Heterosexuality in the Context of Sexual Violence Activism: A Rhetorical Case Study

By Chadwick, Rachelle Joy | Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Queering Heterosexuality in the Context of Sexual Violence Activism: A Rhetorical Case Study


Chadwick, Rachelle Joy, Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review


Abstract

Since the 1990s, a large body of feminist research has problematized normative heterosexuality. Few studies have, however, explored the ways in which women's investment in normative heterosexuality is implicated in the reproduction of anti-feminist and gender oppressive discourses. This paper explores the ways in which sexual violence feminism collides with heterosexuality through a rhetorical case study of one volunteer working in a sexual violence crisis centre in South Africa. The analysis outlines a series of rhetorical strategies that are used to reproduce normative heterosexuality as unchanged, even in the context of sexual violence feminism. These strategies include: 'othering' the problem of rape, using a discourse of trauma and pathology to account for sexual violence, constructing rape as a communication failure, repositioning women as 'essentially' nasty and dangerous, and discrediting feminism by arguing that it cannot account for the problem of women's violence against women.

Keywords: heterosexuality, sexual violence activism, feminism, rhetorical analysis

Heterosexual (like 'white', 'male' or 'ablebodied)' is always a silent term (Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1993, p. 3).

Introduction

Heterosexuality has been problematised in the last twenty years, with feminist work featuring prominently in this critique (e.g., Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1993; Hollway, 1995; Jackson, 1995; Gill & Walker, 1992; Frith, 1994). The critique of heterosexuality has been centrally concerned with explicating and deconstructing oppressive power relations, arguing that the "ta ken-for-g ranted' and naturalised status of heterosexuality needs to be challenged. Feminists have theorised naturalised heterosexuality as intimately interwoven with capitalist patriarchy, women's oppression, and normative gender relations (Ingraham, 1994). A series of feminist studies and books have thus been published aiming to deconstruct the privileged silence that accompanies naturalised heterosexuality (e.g. Richardson, 1996; Jackson, 1999; Potts, 2002; Johnson, 2005; Ingraham, 2008). A key part of this privileged silence is that individuals are rarely called upon to make an explicit story of their heterosexuality within wider society. Often being heterosexual remains a kind of invisible ' non -identity' that is never challenged or questioned.

Within this paper, I am interested in exploring how heterosexuality is negotiated in a context in which it is made 'queer'. Investigating the lives of sexual violence activists and counsellors afforded an opportunity to explore how 'sexual violence feminism' intersects with women's (hetero)sexual lives. I found that a 'collision' with discourses of 'sexual violence feminism' led to various strategies being taken up' by heterosexual women in their efforts either to discard their heterosexuality or sustain and reproduce it. This paper asks: what happens when heterosexuality is made 'queer? How do individuals negotiate their sexuality in a context in which heterosexuality becomes that which requires explanation and justification?

Critical Studies of Heterosexuality

While several studies have explored women's talk about their heterosexual relationships and practices of heterosex (e.g., Gavey 1996; Jackson 2001; Jackson & Cram 2003; Tolman et al., 2003; Harris, 2005; Curtin et al., 2011; Doull & Sethna, 2011; Maxwell & Aggleton, 2012; Renold & Ringrose, 2012), few studies have asked women to reflect on or provide a rationale for their heterosexuality. The naturalisation of heterosexuality is probably at play in this silence, particularly given that lesbian and bisexual women are often asked to account for their sexuality in research studies (e.g., Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1995; Esterberg, 1997; McDermott, 2004). The ways in which women's investments in heterosexuality might lead to collusion with or reproduction of homophobia, gender conformity and antifeminist sentiments has also received scant attention. …

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