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Rebecca Stringer

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About the author

Rebecca Stringer is completing a doctoral thesis which explores the uses of Nietzsche's conception of ressentiment for interpreting feminist victim politics. While this work is based in the Program in Political Science at RSSS, ANU, Rebecca teaches in the Gender & Women's Studies Program at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Publication details

Volume 8, May 2001

Blaming Me Blaming You: victim identity in recent feminism 1

Words are like pockets, into which this and now that has been put, and now so many things at once!
Friedrich Nietzsche.2


As I write a group of people are wandering past my house and up the street, in the direction of Shelly Beach. They're strolling at a leisurely pace, although I'm certain that their purpose is at some remove from leisure. I see now that their faces are sombre. Some are carrying flowers. Some of the women are holding each other's hands. There are arms around shoulders and handkerchiefs. They're here to mourn.

Ten years ago today this street was the last thing thirteen people saw. David Gray, armed with a thing well made, went from house to house shooting the people inside. Someone called the police. When a lone officer arrived, Gray shot him dead. Then he took off into the dunes, which he knew like the back of his hand. Twenty-two hours passed while police staked the lion's share of Aramoana abodes and helicoptered cameramen circled the village like a murder of crows.

Gray had managed to elude police and hide out in that crib around the corner. He tended his weapon. Eventually police approached. The stand off drew to a close. Gray burst out of the crib firing randomly, roaring SHOOT ME. They did. The media dubbed it 'suicide by police.' Real estate prices fell to their deaths. A pall descended on the village. Survivors burned Gray's crib down. Some packed up their pain and left. Many stayed.

The news tonight begins with a segment on the tenth anniversary of the Aramoana shooting. A voice-over rehearses the narrative of the event while mug shots of Gray are montaged with images of the beaches, the wildlife, footage from the day, the dead while they were alive, and the list of names and ages of the dead carved into the memorial pillar near Shelly beach.3 The camera pans over the groups gathered at the memorial. The report speaks of this day as one of grief refreshed and pain renewed, but ultimately emphasises healing, recovery, overcoming and the possibility of forgiveness.

A plush Santa Fe-style villa has been built on the site of Gray's crib. New people have moved into the village. Families come from town to walk the length of the beaches and marvel at Bear Rock. Open wounds have closed into scars. Ten years have passed. Time perhaps to rethink Gray? Tui, a seasoned Aramoanan, tells the reporter that Gray was fragile, damaged and unhappy. He had been beaten up and teased relentlessly by his neighbours just prior to the shooting. Perhaps, if this had not happened, the shooting would not have happened. Julie, whose daughter Rewa was killed, tells the reporter that she feels sorry not so much for Gray himself, but for his soul. She can forgive the soul but not its host or his final deeds. 'Gray had many victims,' the reporter concludes, 'but he too was a victim of Aramoana.'4

Victims and victimologies

'Victim' is an unruly word. Its meanings and connotations, its capacity to invite scorn or sympathy, tend to depend not just on what 'type' of victim is being addressed, but on whether 'victim' is supposed to denote a kind of agency or an utter lack of agency, and on what reading of power relations the denotation is servicing. Using a selection of feminist writings on victimology, victim activism and 'victim feminism,' I will examine a range of contemporary meanings and connotations of the word 'victim' before focusing on the central matter with which this paper is concerned: 'victim identity' and directions of blame in critiques of 'victim feminism.'

In criminological settings, 'victim' means "recipient or object of criminal action"5. For criminologists, 'victim' is a technical term attached to the practice of 'victimology', which is itself twofold in meaning. A 'victimology' is a list of the names of those victimised by one person or by a particular kind of crime. But 'victimology' is also the term used to describe that form of criminology devoted to studying "the criminal-victim relationship", the "interaction" between criminal and victim, and the "role" of the victim in the crime, a role which is thought to vary "from passive to quite active"6. As Anne McLeer describes, a victimology (in this second sense of the term) will not necessarily assume that the relationship between criminal and victim is simply one of 'actor' and 'acted-upon'. The victim is not necessarily or automatically cast as one who utterly lacks the capacity for positive action (as opposed to passive reaction) and who, therefore, will be of little interest to the project of examining the crime and the agency of its executor. As McLeer elucidates,

The acted-upon (the victim) is presumed to have subjectivity that informs the subjectivity of the actor (the criminal), and also to have subjectivity that informs the action (the crime). Deleting the role of the victim in this configuration would lose important knowledge about the whole situation7.

Importantly, victimologists make it clear that their focus on the victim-their social location, role in the crime, account of the crime, and so forth-is not to be confused with blaming the victim. In focussing on the victim their intention is to elaborate more nuanced geographies and demographies of crime, and to contribute to crime's prediction and prevention. It is not their aim to redirect blame or overhaul conventional understandings of criminal responsibility and intent. Thus victimology, as McLeer indicates, is to be distinguished from accounts of victim 'precipitation' and 'participation' which tend to facilitate a transference of blame from the perpetrator to the victim-a transference that has been of much concern to feminists in relation to cases of rape and sexual harassment8.

Victimology, then, is premised on a way of thinking about a victim's 'role' in what happened to them, and their relationship to the agent of harm, without crossing the floor into victim blame. This definition of 'victim' avoids any necessary connotation of passivity because it is inherently unstable in so far as the capacity for positive action on the part of the victim is understood as variable. Further, while victims are formally the 'object' or 'recipient' of another's action, they are at the same time a kind of actor who, having interacted with or reacted to the criminal, can yield important information about "the agency of the criminal"9. So this definition of 'victim' avoids tying the term to either pole-passivity or activity-in any fixed way. McLeer, following victimologists, does not use the term 'agency' in relation to victimhood. Rather, she uses the terms "active subjectivity" and "subjectivity", reserving 'agency' to describe the criminal.10 So, while the victim is understood as having a variable capacity for positive action and can therefore be described as an actor or subject, she or he is not understood as a fully-fledged agent since victimisation is precisely a (momentary or otherwise) deprivation of agency. This said, the victim is not entirely prohibited from agency either.

This kind of victimology can be distinguished from what McLeer calls 'radical victimology', where the category 'victim', still understood in the sense outlined above, is broadened to encompass victims of institutional and systemic oppression, and where the term 'criminal' is traded for the term 'oppressor' or the less individualised 'dominative power'11. Here, the 'victim-criminal relationship' is grafted onto relations of domination more generally. As I will indicate later in the paper, it is this kind of victimology, in its feminist guise, with which critics of 'victim feminism' take issue. The critique of 'victim feminism' might be seen as the feminist branch of a much wider contemporary critique of 'victim culture' or, as Robert Hughes put it, the 'culture of complaint'12. The broadening of the category 'victim' as a part of emancipatory projects has provoked counterarguments of the sort: 'will the real victim please stand up'. But one of the problems is that critics of 'victim culture' are still working with a narrow, classic definition of the word victim. They have not appreciated the extent to which this word means very different things to their opponents or, alternatively, that their opponents have made a calculated move beyond this word for well considered reasons. To put it simply, critics of victim culture use 'victim' to denote passivity, an utter lack of agency, and a deflection of responsibility. Their opponents have either redefined 'victim' to connote certain kinds of activity-as we have seen above-or they have elected to use an alternative term with which to facilitate these connotations. For feminist victim activists, that alternative term is 'survivor.'

Surviving Victimhood

In crossing from the realm of criminology and radical victimology to the realm of feminist victim activism, we find rather different versions of the word 'victim'13. In general, the relationship between feminism and the word 'victim' is extremely complex. On the one hand, feminism serves to remind women of their capacities for positive action and agency (or, to put it another way, to construct women as the bearers of these capacities). On the other hand, feminism aims to examine, critique and oppositionally counter the variety of ways in which women are constituted as passive non-agents in relation to men14. The moral purchase of 'victim' can be irresistible politically, but at the same time calling oneself, or all women, or some women, 'victims' in the classic sense of the term can cede agency, court misrepresentation, and reaffirm a chillingly familiar image of feminine weakness. This last objection-the reaffirmation of weakness-is particularly significant to feminist victim activist definitions of the word 'victim', and the well known predilection for an alternative word, 'survivor.' For some, 'victim' simply denotes the dead: sufferers of fatal abuse. In accord with this, a 'survivor' is one who literally survives abuse. For others, 'victim' refers to "those who blame themselves, carry shame, or continue to let others victimise them"15. Here, a victim is one whose momentary victimisation has become an abiding aspect of their self-identity and social being. A victim's 'allowance' of further victimisation is linked to having blamed herself for her original victimisation. Self-blame lends victim identity a self-perpetuating character and makes victimhood a kind of mire one must work to escape. I will concentrate on this second definition of victim, and on the version of 'survivor' with which it is generally paired.

Here the classic connotations of the term 'victim' come into play: passivity, defencelessness, powerlessness, guilelessness. Unlike the victimological definition of the term (indeed this is precisely the definition victimology seeks to overcome), this victim is the 'done-to' and is marked by an utter lack of agency (or to be more precise, an unwillingness or inability to exercise potential agency). It should be noted that this victim's self-blame is not represented as a conscious choice or reasoned adjudication. Rather, self-blame is most often understood as an effect of an abuser's manipulative tactics, which are all the more effective in being practised within a wider context of gendered asymmetries of power. It should be noted further that accounts of victim identity tend to posit this identity as indigenous to the experience of victimisation, as a kind of generic starting point, stage or phase. It is the task of the victim to survive not just victimisation, but the 'victim identity' attendant upon it. This 'victim identity' is a kind of performance, one that involves forms of acquiescent behaviour also understood as 'dysfunctional' and ultimately debilitating16.

The claim that victims 'continue to let others victimise them' at first appears to be at odds with feminist arguments against the notion of victim precipitation. One suggestion that follows from this claim is that victimisation can give rise to particular behavioural practices which serve to 'invite' or 'allow' further victimisation. Such an argument might easily be placed in the service of the transference of blame considered above. If 'victims' proceed to 'invite' or 'allow' further victimisation, the flow of blame toward the victimiser is stymied somewhat, or might be stymied in certain legal contexts. Obviously this would be contrary to the intentions of feminist victim activists. Indeed, my point mainly concerns the pragmatics of legal defence rather than the verity of this claim. But, as I hope to reveal at a later stage, the connotation that victimhood is a kind of performance that runs the risk of fulfilling its own prophecy is currently the most volatile of the many connotations the word 'victim' can be said to bear.

The process of overcoming victim identity is thought to entail a number of existential manoeuvres, all of which are well charted in the taxonomies of victim and survivor identity elaborated in the feminist therapeutic and victim activist literature. As we saw with the first pair of definitions of 'victim' and 'survivor', a survivor is one who literally survived abuse. In this second pair of definitions survivorship is presented as an "earned status", and it actually has much in common with the connotation of 'active subjectivity' in the victimological definition of 'victim', although survivorship connotes agency in a much less hesitant manner17. Whereas victim identity is understood as indigenous to the experience of victimisation and as an utter lack of agency, survivorship is understood as an intervention upon the experience of victimisation and, in this, as a reclamation and exercise of agency. In Dawn McCaffrey's telling, survivor status is earned by its proponents after a process of "taking responsibility for ending dysfunctional patterns in their lives, desisting in self-blame, and focusing on emerging from a traumatic event alive"18. It is this kind of identity that is encouraged by feminist victim activists. The encouragement of the possibility of survivorship is intended to restore dignity and a sense of resourcefulness to those who have experienced sexual abuse.

Before crossing to one last version of the word 'victim'-that found in critiques of 'victim feminism'-we must examine what "desisting in self-blame" means for survivorship. We must ask after the difference between 'taking responsibility' and 'self-blame', for they are both centred on the subject's 'role' in past or potential future victimisation. Desisting in self-blame is presented as a kind of settling of accounts with the victimiser, but it is also future-oriented. A survivor's ability to transcend self-blame issues from two things. First, the ability to attribute guilt or blame to the victimiser (and so cease to blame themselves). Second, a preparedness to 'take responsibility' for one's actions. 'Taking responsibility', which forms a central part of the kind of activity associated with survivorship, is posited as the means by which the 'allowance' of further victimisation on the part of 'victims' might be overcome.

'Taking responsibility' means a preparedness to employ one's capacity to be resourceful, active, strong, courageous, skilful, and resistant, where these are precisely the capacities that are obscured in the experience of victimisation and the victim identity attendant upon it. Oddly enough, however, 'taking responsibility' does seem to reinstall an element of the self-blame associated with victim identity. 'Self-blame' and 'taking responsibility' are most often presented as diametrically opposed in taxonomies of victim and survivor identity, perhaps in order to retain the sense of achievement, progress and overcoming that a leap from victim to survivor must be made to promise19. But they are kindred in the sense that they are both focussed on the role of the self in one's past and potential future victimisation and, in this, on one's possible 'allowance' of future abuse. The difference is that a 'survivor' is cognisant of her capacity for active resistance, and scripts her future in accord with this, whereas a victim is not cognisant of her capacities and so scripts a passive future. Either way, 'responsibility' for potential future victimisation is on the heads of, not only the potential victimisers, but the responsible survivors and acquiescent victims as well. In the case of survivor identity, 'taking responsibility' is at once a vigorous form of empowerment and-by its own logic-a reinstallation of the possibility of self-blame.

Playing the Victim

As I noted earlier the meanings and connotations of 'victim' depend on whether 'victim' is supposed to denote a kind of agency, or an utter lack of agency. This same pair of alternatives inform recent feminist debates regarding subjectivity. The question as to whether the subject is "enacting or being acted by" social norms has renewed currency in the wake of Judith Butler's concept of performativity20. Indeed there is some correspondence between the relations of the victim/survivor, the victimiser and the deed of victimisation in feminist victim activist accounts and the relations of the (fictive) "doer", social norms and the "deed" in Butler's account. While a thoroughgoing application of her concept to the question of victimhood and survivorship is beyond the scope of this article, I will examine writings in which victimhood is understood as a kind of performance or 'role' that one is either compelled to play, or 'volunteers' to play. While these conceptions of victimhood are actually akin to the voluntarist version of identity Butler argues against, they are of relevance to her project. They offer a challenge, not to the discursive power of phallocentrism, but to feminism. Thus they lend feminism the kind of weight Butler lends gender norms in her account of the constitution of gendered subjects.

The meaning of the term 'victim' in critiques of 'victim feminism', such as those of Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe which I will be considering here, appears to be quite complex, as a number of arguments converge around the word21. However, neither Wolf nor Roiphe attend to the variety of meanings this word has, for feminists or others. Both tend to use the term to denote a resentful person who lays blame, deflects responsibility, and claims they lack agentic capacities. One cannot find meaningful reference to the victim/survivor dichotomy in their books. Although they argue that feminism has become an exercise in representing women as victims, they do not acknowledge longstanding feminist efforts to elaborate and encourage alternatives to 'victim identity'22. Rather, these efforts are obscured in the interests of delivering an unequivocal image of a 'victim feminism' whose ideology disavows female agency and must be rejected on that basis. In this way, the complexity of feminism's relationship to the category 'victim' is written out of their accounts. Wolf's and Roiphe's accounts of victim feminism are different in many respects, with Wolf's account being the more generous and systematic of the two. But there are a number of commonalities between them. One is the argument that 'victim feminism' represents women as the powerless victims of men and, in so doing, threatens to bring this victimhood into effect. As Naomi Wolf puts it, "victim feminism . . . urges women to identify with powerlessness, even at the expense of taking responsibility for the power they do possess"23. Thus victim feminism runs the risk of self-fulfilling its prophecies regarding the sexism endemic to the gender system prevailing within social life. Women become victims since victim feminism encourages them to allow the victimisation they either fear or experience to define their identity. This argument is especially applied to the issue of feminist interpretations of sexual assault and harassment. The second argument is peculiar to Roiphe's account and is an extension of the first. It is that in affirmative action settings women take on victim identity as a ruse so that they might benefit from the kudos it provides. Here, Roiphe uses the word 'victim' to refer to a fully-fledged, calculating and duplicitous agent engaged in a cynical feminist 'performance.'

Within the first argument, that victim feminism threatens to bring women's victimhood into being, a number of points are made24. The point of most interest to us here is that victim feminism threatens to encourage women who have experienced or feel vulnerable to sexual assault or harassment to allow victimhood to become a dominant and abiding part of their identities. In this regard, Wolf writes, "[t]here is nothing wrong with identifying one's victimisation. The act is critical. There is a lot wrong with moulding it into an identity"25. Wolf distinguishes between 'identifying one's victimisation' and 'identifying as a victim', where the latter trades realisation of one's agentic capacities for the attribution of all agency to the blameworthy victimiser. Wolf's point is that women who either experience or feel vulnerable to sexual assault or harassment might benefit if they refuse to allow victimhood and a sense of vulnerability to become dominant and abiding aspects of their identities as women. As against this, Wolf would have women adopt a 'power feminist' ethos whereby they might retain or gain cognisance of their strengths and transcend victim identity's embittered circuit of blaming men and eschewing responsibility in which, she argues, victim feminism threatens to ensnare them26. What is clear from this is that the dichotomy which runs through Fire With Fire, that of 'victim feminism' versus 'power feminism,' bears a strong resemblance to the victim/survivor dichotomy of feminist victim activism. In particular, it would appear that Wolf's portrait of 'power feminism' has much in common with feminist victim activist understandings of survivorship insofar as both constructions seek to ontologise women as capable agents who might transcend 'victim identity.' Why, then, is there no discussion of the victim/survivor dichotomy in Wolf's account? What does Wolf have to say about feminist victim activist elaborations of female agency? To address these questions we must turn to Wolf's "case study" of victim feminism. Here we find that Wolf not only excludes feminist victim activist elaborations of female agency from her discussion, she renders feminist victim activism as inimical to female agency. That is, Wolf locates feminist victim activists as "victim feminists" who, instead of valuing and promoting survivorship, are complicit in victim feminism's hortatory call for women to 'identify with powerlessness.'

In seeking to provide a "case study" of victim feminism in action, Wolf offers an account of the internal political climate of the rape crisis centre in which she worked as a volunteer over a two year period27. This case study functions as an exemplar of victim feminist politics, and also operates emblematically to describe the general political culture of feminist victim activism. In other words, any distinction which might exist between 'victim feminism' and 'feminist victim activism' given the latter's investment in the elaborations of female agency under the rubric of 'survivorship', is obscured in Wolf's account. Survivorship is mentioned in her account only in so far as the centre's clients are referred to as "survivors". The notion that survivorship is an ethos which underpins feminist victim activism is deleted from Wolf's study, thus leaving no impediment to her argument that this form of activism is stricken with victim feminism. Wolf's case study is a story of bad politics, bad air and bad decor. Of the decor, Wolf writes "the shabbiness of the centre reinforced the 'moral' of the rape: you were made to feel like nothing by the crime; now come and try to recover in a place where we treat ourselves like nothing, too"28. Careful not to impugn the survivors serviced by the centre, Wolf levels her criticisms at fellow volunteers whose victim feminist edicts eventually brought about the centre's downfall29. She writes, "[i]t was not the survivors who drained us; their resilience was energising. It was the volunteers themselves whose culture of hopelessness was so different from the quality with which survivors brought themselves back into life"30. Here, Wolf charges feminist victim activists with being mired in 'victim identity', and suggests that they threatened rather than facilitated the recovery processes of survivors (who healed autonomously, bringing 'themselves back to life')31.

The story Wolf tells may be an accurate portrait of the politics of one rape crisis centre, and on the face of it her charge is levelled at the specific individuals she worked with (who were "suffering the hangover of an obsolete femininity"32). I am not seeking here to dispute the nature of Wolf's experience, or to place feminist victim activism somewhere beyond hermeneutics. Rather, my specific concern is that in her overall narrative Wolf's 'case study' functions as a commentary on the general culture and politics of feminist victim activism (qua victim feminism) and as such involves a particular form of misrepresentation. In Wolf's construction of this case study, a sleight of hand is performed in which the strengths of feminist victim activism, in particular its elaboration of and investment in the agentic capacities associated with survivorship, are divorced from feminist victim activists themselves; only to reappear as the novel insights offered as part of Wolf's inauguration of 'power feminism.' In this sense, Wolf's 'power feminist' goal to promote among women the kinds of capacities associated with survivorship is not so much a radical departure from, but a legacy of, the very form of feminism Wolf impugns.

Had Wolf provided a thoroughgoing account of the victim/survivor dichotomy in her book, an account which acknowledged its ongoing presence and development in feminist victim activism and theory, she would have been forced into a different thesis for her book. In particular, her representation of 'power feminism' and 'victim feminism' as distinct and indeed opposed forms of feminism would have been unsustainable. This is because the political form her case study associates with 'victim feminism' actually redraws elements of her 'power feminism' in its emphasis on survivorship and its awareness of the disabling effects of 'victim identity.' But in avoiding a thorough-going engagement with the victim/survivor dichotomy, Wolf has also elided the complexities surrounding the term 'victim'. Wolf employs 'victim' to denote a resentful person who lays blame: specifically, a resentful woman/feminist who blames men ("victim feminism ... attacks men themselves as wrong"33). Withholding such blame is the key to adopting 'power feminism' and responding to its imperative to 'take responsibility.' But as feminist victim activists point out, the problem with victim identity is self-blame, precisely the inability to lay blame on others. The 'victim' who remains a 'victim' because she blames herself for her victimisation is absent from Wolf's account. Thus her account inherits the problematic relationship noted earlier between 'self-blame' and 'taking responsibility,' and neglects the question as to how power feminism, or indeed any feminist version of agency, might be approached from the disposition of self-blame.

But Roiphe's version of the argument that feminism threatens to bring women's victimisation into being is of most concern. This account involves a sleight of hand which transfers blame for women's sexual victimisation from patriarchal modes of social organisation to feminist agitation against such modes. Unlike Wolf, whose framework allows for feminism to be seen as responsive to victimisation, Roiphe holds that feminism first implants the idea that women are victimised, then encourages women to play out the role of the victim. She offers the strange formulation that women34 who believe they have experienced sexual assault or harassment are 'performing feminism.' She writes:

At the most uncharted moments in our lives we reach instinctively for the stock plots available to our generation, as trashy and cliched as they may be. . . . Now, if you're a woman, there's another role readily available: that of the sensitive female, pinched, leered at, assaulted daily by sexual advances, encroached upon, kept down, bruised by harsh reality. Among other things, feminism has given us this35.

What Roiphe is suggesting in this passage is that sexual assault and harassment are 'stock plots' (scripted by feminism), not social realities. Roiphe is confusing the valid argument that feminists cannot claim to be dispossessed of discursive power as they examine and contest sexual assault and harassment, with the anachronistic view that women who claim to have experienced sexual abuse of some form are not to be trusted because they are duplicitous. Roiphe is denying the existence, or at least the seriousness and extent, of sexual abuse rather than making a measured argument regarding how feminists have engaged with it36. Roiphe's analysis might have sought to gauge the empirical extent of sexual abuse in a manner alternative to those which feminists have previously employed, but instead of this it performs its delegitimisation of feminist approaches to sexual abuse by fiat.

At the beginning of her book Roiphe absolves herself of the task of rigorous engagement with her object of critique in stating that readers will not find the "objective truth" in her book because she is "not a camera"37. She writes that her book is comprised of "what [she] see[s], limited, personal, but entirely real ... impressions"38. However her assumption of this authorial location as an innocent but opinionated bystander who is at the mercy of "the real" does not perform its intended function. In part this is because her book seeks to challenge feminists who assume this very location. The kinds of claims regarding sexual assault which Roiphe critiques-for example, victim testimonies made at Take Back The Night Marches39 - are based on the heavily contested feminist category of experience. Rather than contesting the explanatory power of "experience", Roiphe harnesses this power for her counter-narrative which is comprised of testimony to different experiences: Roiphe's "limited, personal, but entirely real" impressions. What we can glean from her book, then, is not so much a powerful critique of feminist dealings with the category 'victim', but simply the fact that Roiphe herself, unlike a number of her peers, does not believe she has experienced sexual assault. She does not, therefore, identify as a "victim" in any sense of the word.


The news report on the tenth anniversary of the Aramoana shooting is interesting for its willingness to extend the category of 'victim' to include the perpetrator of an intensely violent crime, a character who is famous for having victims, not for being a victim. The idea that those who have victims might themselves be victims, and may even have victims because they are victims, has a good deal of presence among contemporary readings of victimisation40. This is of interest to this paper since it conveys the sense in which shifts in what the word 'victim' is made to connote tend also to shift directions of blame. Once we see him, as well as his victims, as a victim, David Gray cannot be seen as completely blameworthy for the victimisation he performed. Blame is not redirected toward his victims in any straightforward way, but the waters of blame are muddied once significance is attached to the fact that Gray's own neighbours victimised him, and that some of them in turn were victimised by him in his gesture of revenge. In other words, blame, responsibility and victim status become ambiguous to the extent that no position within the relation of victimisation has exclusive purchase on innocence. Of most interest to this paper are the ends to which such manoeuvres as these can be put41.

These same kinds of manoeuvres are made in critiques of 'victim feminism.' As a part of these critiques feminists are generally urged to relinquish their willingness to blame men exclusively or at all for women's subjugation. Feminism is seen as being rather like an unofficial (or regrettably in some cases official) criminal justice system that refuses to do justice to the complexity of relations of victimisation, and that instead favours a naive victimological morality that casts "women themselves as good and attacks men themselves as wrong"42. The questions this kind of reading raises are important for feminists to confront. However, as I have sought to demonstrate in this article, feminists have not tended to deal lightly with the word 'victim'. They have in fact been rather more thoughtful in their handling of victimhood, blame, responsibility and the relational complexities attendant upon these terms than they are given credit for in critiques of 'victim feminism.' Thus, in the course of this article, I have crafted something of a defence of feminist victim activism and 'feminism' in general against the charge that they are invested in a naive victimological morality.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the critique of victim feminism is the suggestion, which in Roiphe's case is an assertion, that feminism brings women's victim identity and victimisation into being through its discursive emphasis upon victimisation. This is troubling firstly because, on closer examination, it is not the case that feminists have actually emphasised victimhood in the way it is claimed they have done, and secondly because this argument has pointed to the complexity of relations of victimisation only to defy this complexity. Most of the definitions of the word 'victim' that have been investigated in this paper seek to render directions of blame and assumptions of responsibility as inherently and indeed irresolvably complex, meaning that the waters are irretrievably muddy and moral adjudication terminally difficult. However critics of victims feminism, where they suggest that feminism risks bringing women's victimisation into being, are muddying the waters only to shore up a newly clean place to stand. In the same way as victim feminism is said to represent women as victims, critics of victim feminism seek to represent a hitherto silenced population comprised of victims of victim feminism. Their newly clean place to stand is occupied by the strong woman alienated by victim feminism, the duped woman who robotically performs victimhood, and of course the man too terrified to say out loud that the subjugation of women is not his fault. In producing a new list of innocents the naive victimological moralism originally at issue is rehearsed rather than overcome. On the basis of this we might say that the challenge for those invested in the study of victimisation is to avoid the predicament wherein fresh redirections of blame serve as final resting points for politics.


1. This article is a revised version of a conference paper presented to The Australian Sociological Association annual conference at Flinders University, Adelaide in December 2000. I am most grateful to Chilla Bulbeck for enabling it to appear here. While the views presented are my own, I would also like to thank the article’s two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, Brian Roper and Heather Brook for reading the paper and providing characteristically acuminous advice, and Peta Morris for her insightful conversation on the themes of the paper. The article is based on research for the doctoral thesis on feminism, victimology and ressentiment which I am currently completing through the Program in Political Science, RSSS, ANU.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals: a polemic, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 180. This comment comes as part of Nietzsche’s discussion of the word ‘revenge.’

3. The list, which for obvious reasons excludes Gray’s name, reads: Garry Holden 38, Jasmine Holden 11, Rewa Bryson 11, Jim Dickson 45, Tim Jamieson 69, Vic Crimp 72, Leo Wilson 6, Dion Percy 6, Ross Percy 42, Aleki Tali 41, Chris Cole 62, Sgt Stu Guthrie 41. A collective epitaph also appears on the pillar: “If it is for your comfort to pour your darkness into space, it is also for your delight to pour forth the dawning of your heart.” The shooting at Aramoana is generally understood as the largest criminal mass murder by a civilian of civilians in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s postcolonial history (presumably this excludes consideration of the violence attendant upon colonisation). On account of this, two books about the shooting appeared soon after it occurred: Bill O'Brien, Aramoana: twenty-two hours of terror (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1991) and Paul Bensemann, Tragedy at Aramoana (Whatamongo Bay: Inprint, 1991).

4. TV3, TV3 Evening News, November 13, 2000.

5. Anne McLeer, ‘Saving the Victim: recuperating the language of the victim and reassessing global feminism,’ Hypatia Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter 1998): 42.

6. William H. Parsonage, ed. Perspectives on Victimology (London, Beverley Hills: Sage, 1979): 9; cited in McLeer, ‘Saving the Victim,’ 42.

7. McLeer, ‘Saving the Victim,’ 43.

8. McLeer, ‘Saving the Victim,’ 43.

9. McLeer, ‘Saving the Victim,’ 43.

10. McLeer, ‘Saving the Victim,’ 51.

11. McLeer, ‘Saving the Victim,’ 45.

12. Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint: the fraying of America (London: Harvill, 1994).

13. By ‘feminist victim activism’ I am referring to feminist campaigns and support networks designed to serve women who have experienced sexual harassment and/or violation. The phrase is borrowed from Dawn McCaffrey’s phrase “victim activism”. Dawn McCaffrey, ‘Victim Feminism/Victim Activism,’ Sociological Spectrum: the official journal of the Mid-South Sociological Association 11/1 (January/March 1991): 263-284. Many thanks to Jennifer Curtin for providing me with this reference.

14. My characterisation of ‘feminism’ is generalised here for the purposes of brevity. For a closer account of the victim question in relation to modernist and postfoundationalist feminisms, and the critique of victim feminism more generally, see Rebecca Stringer, ‘‘‘A Nietzschean Breed’: feminism, victimology, ressentiment,’ in Alan Schrift, ed., Why Nietzsche Still? Reflections on drama, culture and politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000): 225-247.

15. McCaffrey, ‘Victim Feminism/Victim Activism,’ 272.

16. McCaffrey, ‘Victim Feminism/Victim Activism,’ 273.

17. I am drawing on McCaffrey’s research on survivorship as an “earned status” here. ‘Victim Feminism/Victim Activism,’ 271.

18. McCaffrey, ‘Victim Feminism/Victim Activism,’ 273.

19. It is true that some feminist victim activists reject the dichotomisation of ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ identities since it obscures the complex emotional reality of those negotiating these terms. As Liz Kelly, Sheila Burton and Linda Regan argue, “Anyone who has worked on their own experiences, and/or with individuals who have experienced sexual violence knows that the two sets of understandings/feelings/responses/meanings [attached to the categories ‘victim and ‘survivor’] co-exist; that strong, courageous children and adults can simultaneously feel hurt and damaged. We also know that the balance between these shifts, and that not all of the issues which experiences of abuse raise emerge at the same time. There is no absolute resolution, since changes in life experience and over the life cycle produce new areas of difficulty.” See Kelly, Burton & Regan, ‘Beyond Victim or Survivor: sexual violence, identity and feminist theory and practice,’ eds. Lisa Adkins and Vicki Merchant, Sexualising the Social: power and the organisation of sexuality (London: Macmillan Press, 1996): 94.

20. This phrasing is borrowed from Paul Patton (‘Nietzsche and the Problem of the Actor’, in Alan Schrift, ed., Why Nietzsche Still? Reflections on drama, culture and politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000): 172). In regard to Butler’s concept of performativity, see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) and Bodies That Matter: on the discursive limits of “sex” (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).

21. Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire: the new female power and how it will change the twenty-first century (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993); Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: sex, fear and feminism (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1993). Other salient critiques of what Wolf calls ‘victim feminism’ include: Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? How women have betrayed women (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Rene Denfeld, The New Victorians: a young woman’s challenge to the old feminist order (New York: Warner Books and Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995); Helen Garner, The First Stone: some questions about sex and power (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995). The latter three texts, especially Rene Denfeld’s, all contain arguments similar to those which concern me here. For example, in Denfeld’s book it is argued that contemporary “feminist mythology” is centred on “a singular female subject . . . woman as a helpless, violated and oppressed victim.” (The New Victorians, 62). However in this paper I focus on Wolf and Roiphe’s accounts since the theme of greatest concern to me here—that is, victim identity as a form of feminist-inspired performance—is pronounced and interestingly configured in their accounts. I examine Denfeld’s account elsewhere (see Stringer, ‘“A Nietzschean Breed”,’ 250-259). For a further account of Denfeld, one which analyses her book in relation to Helen Garner’s The First Stone, see Shane Rowlands and Margaret Henderson’s excellent piece ‘Damned Bores and Slick Sisters: the selling of blockbuster feminism in Australia,’ Australian Feminist Studies 11/23, 1996: 9-16.

22. As I will go on to note, in recounting her experience of working at a rape crisis centre, Wolf refers to the centre’s clients as “survivors”, and is clearly aware of the victim/survivor dichotomy. However she does not address the reasons why the term ‘survivor’ has such currency in rape crisis circles. Thus the significance of the term for feminist figurations of female agency is wiped from her account of feminist victim activism. See Wolf, Fire With Fire, 164-169.

23. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 148.

24. One of these points, which I am unable to go into at any length here, is that victim feminism takes some women’s ‘real’ experience of sexual assault to be emblematic of women’s experience in general. This means women who have not experienced sexual assault (“real rape”) are either encouraged to understand themselves as perpetually vulnerable to it, or to retrospectively decide that previous sexual encounters were in fact abusive. A familiar critique of Catharine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin underpins this point. Victim feminism is thought to accomplish these feats of identity formation by popularising the notion that ‘all heterosexual sex is rape,’ that ‘pornography is the theory, rape is the practice,’ and that ‘all men are rapists’; notions that are readily identified with MacKinnon and Dworkin’s feminist perspective and anti-pornography campaign. This point is particularly evident in Roiphe’s scathing critique of MacKinnon and Dworkin (see Roiphe, The Morning After, 138-160). While MacKinnon and Dworkin’s views certainly require critical responses, the ad hominum (or feminam) invective directed toward them in Roiphe’s account seems overstated and largely unwarranted. For MacKinnon and Dworkin’s work, see: Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), Feminism Unmodified: discourses on life and law (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987) and Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (New York: Free Press, 1987), Pornography: men possessing women (London: Women's Press, 1981) and Woman Hating (New York, Dutton, 1974). A comprehensive compilation of MacKinnon and Dworkin’s collaborative anti-pornography work, as well as a defence of their campaign and reply to its critics, appears in their book In Harm’s Way: the pornography civil rights hearings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). For a thoughtful critique of MacKinnon based on a close reading of her work rather than a reaction to her popular reputation see Wendy Brown, ‘The Mirror of Pornography,’ States of Injury: power and freedom in late modernity (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995): 77-95.

25. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 148.

26. I mention ‘blaming men’ here because Wolf’s portrait of victim feminism suggests that this direction of blame is one of victim feminism’s customary reflexes. Wolf’s account of the rape crisis centre where she worked suggests that this reflex underpins the centre's prohibition of “affectionate talk about [one’s] boyfriend.” Wolf, Fire With Fire, 168.

27. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 164-169.

28. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 165.

29. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 169.

30. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 169.

31. Here, one must wonder how feminist victim activists managed to promote survivorship and pursue the victim feminist gesture of “urging women to identify with powerlessness even at the expense of taking responsibility for the power they do possess” (Wolf, Fire With Fire, 148).

32. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 169.

33. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 149. Emphasis in original.

34. I am tempted to say “some women” here because, as I elaborate in a later footnote, Roiphe does not go so far as to say that all rape is illusion and that it effectively does not exist. In this sense Roiphe does not apply her formulation to all women, but rather to ‘some’ or ‘most’ women. However it is also the case that central to the style of Roiphe’s book, which despite declarations to the contrary (The Morning After, 7) is a self-consciously provocative polemic, is its tendency toward ambiguous play with morally charged questions such as those surrounding sexual assault. In this way Roiphe’s book goads gravity.

35. Roiphe, The Morning After, 172.

36. Roiphe is adopting the conventional notion of ‘real rape.’ At times she acknowledges that rape occurs, but she takes exception to feminist attempts to conflate heterosexual sex with rape, and to make rape an emblem of relations between the sexes. Thus she wants to narrow the band of sexual assault-related injuries feminists are prepared to acknowledge as ‘legitimate.’ Of course the risk here—which is one I think Roiphe would gladly take—is that feminist readings of rape would become indistinguishable from regressive readings which hold that unless sexual assault is evidently brutal, violent and/or fatal, it cannot be registered as a ‘legitimate’ cause for complaint. This predicament is, I suggest, symptomatic of the critique of victim feminism as it has been articulated so far: its productive potential in relation to feminist readiness for auto-critique is undercut by its essentially regressive political drive.

37. Roiphe, The Morning After, 7. Upon closer inspection this comment of Roiphe’s is quite contradictory. A camera only ever translates ‘the real’ in accord with light conditions and always in a partial way owing to the limits of the viewfinder, the perspective of the photographer, and the techniques of photographic post-production, among other things. In this sense, the ‘impressions’ the camera yields are borne out of tension between the ‘limit’ and the ‘real.’ It might have been more accurate for Roiphe to claim the opposite—“I am a camera”—thus leaving Isherwood’s “famous narrative metaphor” intact.

38. Roiphe, The Morning After, 7.

39. Roiphe, The Morning After, 29-50.

40. A recent and startling example of this is the way in which the word ‘victim’ was employed in the New Zealand media in relation to alleged murderer Mark Lundy. After a year-long investigation Lundy was arrested and charged with the brutal murder of his wife and child. At the funeral of his wife and child Lundy’s extraordinary display of grief was captured by news cameras and shown on primetime news. At the time of the funeral Lundy was not a suspect for the murders and was referred to as a “victim” by police and media. However, when Lundy was arrested for the murders, police refused to renege on their previous adoption of the term “victim” in relation to Lundy. Rather, in a newspaper article entitled “‘Victim’ charged with murder” police claimed “He was a victim. Mr Lundy was a victim of himself.” Otago Daily Times, February 24, 2001: 1.

41. I am not arguing here that directions of blame and assignments of innocence need to be firmed up or finalised. Such gestures would inevitably defy the complexity of relations of victimisation and involve repressions which I would regard as fundamentally at odds with the aims of feminist politics. But what I am seeking to argue is that the manoeuvres referred to here can not be divorced from the projects of which they are a part. In this sense, redirections of blame and reconfigurations of the category ‘victim’ in relation to the category of ‘agent’ can have vastly different manifestations and consequences depending on whose hands they are in.

42. Wolf, Fire With Fire, 148. Emphasis in original

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