Working with Foucault to examine feminist knowledge/practices in the field of sexual assault

Suzanne Egan

PhD thesis, conferred 2015

This thesis examines the ways in which feminist knowledge/s of sexual violence have been produced and reproduced in the local field of sexual assault, in New South Wales, Australia. Internationally, specialist sexual assault services are a relatively recent phenomenon, appearing on the landscape only thirty years ago. In the Australian literature, their appearance is consistently linked to feminist activism and theorising. However, the precise contour of the relationship between feminist knowledge/s and sexual assault services and practices has yet to be established. Via a Foucauldian derived methodological approach, the study excavates the knowledge used in, and produced through and about, sexual assault services in NSW.

The library of documents assembled includes texts produced from interviews conducted with practitioners from selected sexual assault services across NSW and documents produced by services and from within the sector, such as brochures, website material, manuals, annual reports, publications and governance documents, such as the policy and procedure manuals. Representations within the assembled documents and texts of the routine practices of sexual assault workers and routine conventions in the regulatory apparatus illuminate the shape and parameters of the contemporary sexual assault service. The picture that emerges is one in which the tight, almost naturalised link between sexual assault and feminist knowledge/practices is being refracted through the lens of ‘trauma’. Sexual assault is represented as about gendered power and violence: as an act that, although experienced by individuals, is located within a structural system of gender inequality. Simultaneously sexual assault is represented as an ontological assault, as an assault on ‘the self’, on the victim’s identity. The significance of this construction is made visible in the interview texts through the concept of psychological trauma, a term that appears frequently in the library of documents. I examine how this concept is deployed, the types of subjects it produces and the ways in which it operates in the field.

This thesis contributes to international feminist scholarship on the uptake of trauma discourses in the field of sexual violence, by demonstrating how sexual assault practitioners have produced new knowledge/practices and how these are shaped by being situated in specific institutional sites. In addition, it appears that trauma and feminist discourses are being made compatible in this local field. The thesis also underlines the importance of interrogating knowledge practices and the significance of Foucauldian derived analytic strategies for de-familiarising fields of feminist concern.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Susan Goodwin and Professor Jude Irwin