Sexual Violence as a Tool of Genocide

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In Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005), Andrea Smith’s offers the notion of “sexual violence as a tool of genocide.” What seems pivotal to this notion, as Smith argues it, is the role of the body as a hegemonic object –the body as a tool for coercion, domination, and oppression. As such, the body, then, becomes the means by which power structures are established within the infrastructure of systems, and power paradigms are grounded between the powerful and the powerless. Essentially, the body is a Marxist commodity that has a value and exchange rate. As I am sure Smith would agree, the body, as a commodity, embodies something that can be valued and exchanged. What is valued and exchanged, I would argue, is power. In this case, when the body is relinquished by one person and repossessed by another, the power paradigm between those individuals drastically shifts –the body is bartered for power.

I find that understanding the role of the body as a means of exchanging power between the powerless and the powerful critical to interpreting Smith’s concept of sexual violence. One way to understand Smith is to propose that having control of the body is essential to the relationship between the victimizer and the victimized. When the victimizer takes control of the body from the victimized, the victimizer assumes control of not just the body as a physical object, but assumes control of the victimized’s selfhood. This, I believe, is another way to understand what Smith means by “sexual violence” –the sense that selfhood is exchanged with the same physical resonance as the body. To dominate, oppress, and coerce is to exert power over the self so that, as a result, selfhood becomes bartered, monetized, and commoditized.

If thinking about “sexual violence” as seizing control of the physical body and the metaphysical self, then Smith is offering an existential argument. In my view, in Smith, “sexual violence” becomes a method of meaning-making. I look at this not just in terms of the meaningfulness of the physical act of “sexual violence” for the victimizer and the victimized, but the phenomenological meaningfulness in the ramifications of one soul being subjected to the soul of another. It is in the latter sense that “sexual violence” has existential value –the shaping of “being-for-self” into “being-for-others.” In effect, when a victimizer is subjected to a position of powerlessness by a victimizer, the victimized’s selfhood is transformed into a “being-for-others.” I tend to believe that Smith is operating under the same premise. But, also, and perhaps, more importantly, the “being-for-others” of the victimized can be best illustrated through Hegel’s lordship-bondsman dialectic, where the bondsman’s self-consciousness is so inextricably linked in the personhood of the lordship that the bondman does not have a “being-for-self” but, instead, has a “being-for-others.” So, “sexual violence,” as Smith describes it, is Hegelian dialectic of power, powerlessness, and empowerment –within this dialectic, the body becomes objectified and, then, through that objectification, relegates two persons to hierarchal positionalities.

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