Library Header Image
LSE Theses Online London School of Economics web site

Resisting the binary: reconciling victimhood and agency in discourses of sexual violence

Raghavan, Priya (2020) Resisting the binary: reconciling victimhood and agency in discourses of sexual violence. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

[img] Text - Submitted Version
Download (2MB)


Dominant discourses of sexual violence institute a binary imaginary of victimhood and agency, producing subjects as either victims or agents but never simultaneously both. This thesis tracks the production and effects of the victim/agent binary, and explores conceptual strategies and archival resources through which to challenge the binary, and interrupt the coercive and exclusionary politics it enables. I argue that the figure of the agentless victim occasions a protectionist response to sexual violence, justifying the expansion of the carceral, patriarchal state, and animating violent and exclusionary nationalisms. Simultaneously, the victim/agent binary becomes grounds for the denial of victimhood to subaltern subjects who are read as agentival, where agency is reinterpreted as culpability. In the context of post-colonial India, I identify case law, legislative reform and dominant feminist responses to sexual violence as key sites at which this binary is installed. These discursive fields are overdetermined by liberal investments in autonomous, unfettered modes of agency, foreclosing the possibility of representing or attending to subaltern subjects whose realities are marked by simultaneous conditions of victimhood and agency. Through a feminist historical ontology of victimhood and agency, I challenge the ‘givenness’ of the victim/agent binary in the dominant archive by assembling what I call a subaltern archive, comprised of letters, petitions, pamphlets, interviews, rural newsletters, slogans, chants and other ephemera. A feminist historical ontology insists on the epistemic significance of subaltern archives as sites of concept-building, and brings into view the possibility of non-binary conceptual productions of victimhood and agency. Extending post-colonial, dalit, and Black feminist interventions, I offer a conceptualisation of agency that departs from liberal, autonomous orthodoxies, insisting on a more expansive account that is able to capture the often concealed and ephemeral ways in which agency manifests in conditions of violence and oppression. Simultaneously, I propose a structural, intersectional account of victimhood as an experience of gendered harm rather than an essential, defining gendered attribute, challenging the biological and psychological accounts of victimhood in dominant discourses. Based on these conceptual realignments of victimhood and agency emerging from the subaltern archive, I argue that within discourses of sexual violence, agency must be understood and represented as not simply compatible with, but often deriving precisely from and in response to experiences of victimhood.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2020 Priya Raghavan
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Sets: Departments > Gender Institute
Supervisor: Henry, Marsha

Actions (login required)

Record administration - authorised staff only Record administration - authorised staff only


Downloads per month over past year

View more statistics