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The politics of naming: victims, survivors and plain dead women

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Friday, 1 June 2012

The 1990s launched a campaign against 'victim feminism'. By 'outing' themselves as raped, criminally assaulted at home, subjected to other forms of domestic or family violence, exploitation or abuse, or experiencing sexist or sexual harassment in the workplace, educational institutions, the cinema, public transport or the street, it was claimed women turned themselves into victims.

This was deemed deplorable.

In 'outing' themselves, purportedly women were 'seeking sympathy', notoriety, 'fame' or press coverage, were 'victim-careerists' or all of these. Bluntly, women sought public identification as 'victims', trading on victimisation, becoming victims by blaming men. This, at least, was the charge.


The expression 'victim feminism' is attributed to Naomi Wolf. It relies upon defining women as diametrically different from men, this being a 'central component' of 'victim feminist' women's very identity and existence. Victim feminism thereby 'turns suffering and persecution into a kind of glamour'. This 'emphasis on personal victimisation' absolves women from responsibility, 'helpless' against the power of men, unable to 'act to change their own condition' and so perpetually consigned to the victim realm. Men are identified as the perpetual and never-ending 'enemy'.

Wolf was not alone inher analysis. Others took up the term, publishing articles and books attesting to what was deemed a move away from engagement with the polity: no longer was there a focus on changing institutions seen as inimical to women's liberation; rather, there was an all-out wallowing in self-pity. Such women were 'wimp' feminists.

So was generated a new category in the panoply into which women are slotted, describing women in derogatory terms. 'Victimhood' was born. Yet how applicable is this label and the sham it implies?

The reality of crime reporting is that proportionately few women report crimes of violence against them. Since 1996, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) has published annual 'snapshots' of crime and criminal justice in Australia. The 12th annual report showed property crime, assault and sexual assault reports as declining between 2007 and 2008. Despite a 49 per cent 'increase in assaults between 1996 and 2008', the number of victim/survivors reporting assaults to police 'dropped from 176,427 to 170,277 between 2007 and 2008'.

Nonetheless, Dr Adam Tomison, AIC director, said 'long-term trends for serious crime types such as robbery, assault and sex assault have been increasing since 1996'. Statistics show the major victims/survivors of sexual assault as women. Yet criminological research shows, too, that these crimes are frequently hidden, because many women fail to report the crimes to police – or anywhere.

In Australia, in the main women are subjected to crimes of assault at home. As for rape and sexual assaults, these crimes are inflicted upon women at home or on the street. Where men are the subject of assault, this most often occurs in the pub or nightclub and environs, or at social activities where men predominate or congregate in groups. Men are generally attacked by men. Similarly with sexual assaults: men are generally attacked by other men. Most often they suffer this violence in prison.


Thus, when it comes to sexual assault, women are targets in the 'free' world – a world where men can generally move about without fearing sexual imposition by their partner at home, or sexual attack by strangers in public places. With assault, women are mostly targeted in the 'safety' of their own homes – whether by current or past partners. Assaults suffered by men do not have the same scope for 'cover-up' nor social pressure to impede reporting. A punch-up between men is likely to be seen by witnesses. When punching, kicking, hitting and other assaults are inflicted upon women, witnesses are rarely present and, if they are, they are most likely to be children and unlikely to report the crimes.

In 2010, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) observed that sexual assault 'remains one of the most underreported of all personal crimes' with 'personal, social, cultural and institutional barriers' operating to prevent reporting to police or in surveys. Therefore, ABS concluded, 'it is likely that survey reported victimisation rates underestimate the true incidence of sexual assault'. Nevertheless, for the year 2008 to 2009, '52,500 (0.3%) Australians aged 18 years and over reported in the [ABS] survey that they were victims of at least one sexual assault, with most of these victims being women (78%)'.

The Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearing House at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) is the premier Australian research unit on the topic of 'intimate partner abuse'. A 2011 report acknowledges the widespread nature of this form of violence as 'a gendered crime'. Noting that estimates of the prevalence of criminal assault at home and other forms of domestic violence 'vary depending on the definition used', the report relies upon the two surveys 'most commonly quoted in Australian research', namely the ABS 'Personal Safety Survey, Australia, 2005', and the International Violence Against Women Survey in its 'Australian component', along with AIC monitoring of homicides, including 'domestic homicide'.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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