Review of Female-Perpetrated Sex Abuse: Knowledge, Power, and the Cultural Conditions of Victimhood by Sherianne Kramer. Routledge. 2017. HB/PB/eBook 188pp.
Review by Isaac Gustafsson Wood, University of Southampton, UK
Sherianne Kramer’s book contributes to a limited dialogue about female-perpetrated sex abuse (FSA). With no previous framework to begin a discourse about FSA, Kramer sets the foundations in poststructuralism. The theoretical basis of this book is in the intersection of poststructuralist arguments from Butler’s theory of performativity, theories on hegemonic masculinity, Foucault’s History of Sexuality and postmodern feminist research on sexual violence. These theories form the backbone to discuss gender, sexuality and power in relation to FSA. Kramer argues that FSA victimhood has not been available in discourse because of the gender, sexuality and power constraints that limit the possibility of female sexual abusers and their victims. Focussing on the knowledge-is-power framework that constitutes and regulates sexuality and gender, FSA victimhood is explored as unthinkable and invisible. In this book, Kramer destabilises the narrative of men as perpetrators and women as victims suggesting FSA has been hidden and the book rethinks how gender and sexuality can be understood differently to allow for the possibility of discussions about FSA.
Kramer’s introduction offers a structured summary of poststructuralism and how it can be used to frame FSA. It will likely be useful for those unfamiliar with the concepts yet the writing style is still discipline specific. Starting with an in-depth analysis of gender, sexuality and power, Kramer argues that there is little discussion about those who commit FSA and what does exist in the popular imagination is only fathomable in specific frameworks, such as when a woman is an accomplice to a male perpetrator. The book questions the limited understandings of gender, sexuality and power that work together to create a cultural perception of women as passive and incapable of rape, whereas men are held to be sexually driven and aggressive, therefore able to rape. These social constructions of gender make it inconceivable to many that FSA could take place.
To get a broader understanding of FSA Kramer considers three areas: how social science discourse has historically constructed sexuality; how evidence of changes in gender perception initiate the concepts of female criminality and male victims; and FSA in the context of South African culture. Within the South African context, the intersectionality of race, class and economic diversity are interrogated. Kramer argues that in South Africa traditional gender paradigms tie victimhood to womanhood and men to sexual violence, thus in South Africa men being victims of FSA is not widely acknowledged. South Africa is different from the global north because of the hegemony of masculinity created by the racial, class and economic diversity of the country.
By challenging common understandings of truth and nature, Kramer argues that ‘truth’ is about what is available in discourse and, as FSA is mostly invisible, this must be created. Female sexual abusers are assumed to have a psychological and pathological disposition to their male counterparts. The hesitation of categorising FSA perpetrators comes from them breaking not just judicial law (like their male counterparts) but also a sort of natural order and heteropatriarchy.
Kramer’s evidence comes largely from interviews from self-identified FSA victims, which are used as case studies to consider how FSA victims identify and narrate their experiences. Kramer argues that the interview framework creates a space of confession, giving FSA victims the space and opportunity to consider their experiences as abuse. By using self-reported incidents, Kramer can explore the heterogeneity of FSA aince data concerning legal sources often use conviction rates to determine prevalence and limiting definition to legal parameters, instead of focussing on identification and the victim’s voice. Through interviews with self-identified FSA victims, their experiences are acknowledged as abuse and their words are used to establish a discourse on FSA victimhood. These case studies are a good start in giving a voice to the discursively excluded. Child sex abuse is at the forefront of the discussion and while Kramer’s case studies focus on cases of child abuse, she argues for a broad definition of FSA and sets out a method for talking about it. To look at FSA victims who were abused as adults would be a significant addition to the still under-researched topic of FSA.
There is much potential here to cross disciplinary lines and apply Kramer’s ideas to screen and representation studies. The methodology of using interviews as confessionals and the internet being a place where victims can find the terminology and community to self-identify could easily be extended to film and television representations of FSA.
Isaac Gustafsson Wood is a PhD researcher at the University of Southampton. His work focuses on representations of male rape in film comedy. He is more broadly interested in gender, representation and Hollywood cinema.