Traumatizing Politics: Legibility and Survivorhood after Domestic Violence
Sweet, Paige Lenore
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This research asks: how and why has domestic violence been medicalized, and what are the effects of this shift on feminist politics and on victims themselves? This dissertation explores this question through 18 months of qualitative research, including archival research on the history of feminist anti-violence activism, in-depth interviews with domestic violence professionals, and life story interviews with victims of domestic violence. This project argues that the articulation of therapeutic practices to feminist logics in the domestic violence field has produced a new "politics of survivorhood" that women must navigate when they seek resources after violence. In order to become "good survivors," women must learn to perform psychological, sexual, and maternal wellness. This emphasis on women's performances of psychological betterment makes invisible the structural conditions that shape women's experiences of violence. Overall, then, this dissertation argues that the expert terms provided to women to make meaning about their experiences and rebuild their lives after abuse are inadequate for navigating the structures of violence and institutional pressures they encounter. The first part of the dissertation traces the historical production of the politics of survivorhood, revealing how anti-violence feminists made themselves into an expert field legible to the state by constructing the figure of the battered woman as a psychologically suffering subject. The following chapters reveal how women make themselves legible to the politics of survivorhood as they seek services. For women of color and undocumented women especially, narratives and performances of "survivorhood" must be accompanied by "respectable" sexuality and motherhood. This dissertation also explores women's strategies for making legible their experiences that fall outside the bounds of survivor discourses, particularly around heterosexuality and non-physical forms of abuse, such as "gaslighting," a type of psychological violence. Drawing on these findings, this dissertation argues that domestic violence should not be conceptualized as a set of discrete events, but as "routines of rupture," rooted in the association of femininity with irrationality. The final chapter explores the centrality of heterosexuality in women's experiences of violence, showing how women "disidentify" from heterosexuality as they rebuild their lives. In general, this dissertation argues that the politics of survivorhood places demands of legibility on women's lives that constrain their practices of survival, femininity, and sexuality, while women also negotiate those logics to meet their own needs.