VULNERABLE BODIES: THE THREAT OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND THE ERROR OF RISK REDUCTION STRATEGIES

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Author:
Aggleton, Sabrina Irene
Graduate Program:
Philosophy
Degree:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Dissertation
Date of Defense:
June 15, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Leonard Richard Lawlor, Dissertation Advisor
  • Leonard Lawlor, Committee Chair
  • Robert Lambert Bernasconi, Committee Member
  • Sarah Clark Miller, Committee Member
  • Claire Mary Colebrook, Outside Member
Keywords:
  • rape
  • ethics
  • embodiment
  • phenomenology
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty
  • Simone de Beauvoir
  • gender
  • vulnerability
Abstract:
This dissertation investigates the widespread tendency to fixate on women’s vulnerability to sexual violence that is pervasive in popular culture, the media, jurisprudence, education, and prevention strategies, such as risk reduction. More specifically, I examine how risk reduction strategies distribute a “special” pre-situational vulnerability to feminine bodies and a sense of gendered responsibility for prevention. To clarify the theoretical limitations and ethical hazards of this distribution, I critically apply concepts from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment and Simone de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity. In the first chapter, I develop Merleau-Ponty’s thesis of the primacy of perception, his account of embodiment, and his ontology of the flesh in order to reveal the ontological error that risk reduction strategies perpetuate. In the second chapter, I develop key facets of Beauvoir’s methodology and existential ethics, including ambiguity, the fluid parameters of the human situation, and the intersubjective dimensions of situated freedom, in order to clarify the ethical error of these strategies. In the third chapter, I carry these methodologies forward in an examination of women’s “special” vulnerability to sexual violence. I critique the phallocentric logic of vulnerability that undergirds the application of a neo-liberal conception of risk management to sexual violence. I examine the corresponding risk reduction strategies that are imposed on the feminine body and provide a phenomenological description of how they situate feminine bodies within a space of risk. This enables me to articulate how the theoretical limitations of the narrow focus on women’s vulnerability translate into ethical harms that impact both women and society at large. The conclusion provides a preliminary framework for liberating vulnerability from risk reduction. More specifically, I suggest an understanding of mutual vulnerability that affirms an existential understanding of risk and recalibrates the reciprocity of the erotic encounter.