Feminist Review

, Volume 112, Issue 1, pp 95–112 | Cite as

sexual assault as trauma: a Foucauldian examination of knowledge practices in the field of sexual assault service provision

  • Suzanne Egan


This paper examines the deployment of the concept of psychological trauma in the field of sexual assault service provision, a field in which a feminist understanding of sexual violence has achieved a position of ‘truth’. Using a Foucauldian methodological approach, the investigation centred on service provision in New South Wales, Australia, and analysis focused on the everyday practices of workers illuminated through documents collected from the field, in particular the interview texts produced from interviews with thirty sexual assault practitioners. The paper focuses on the adult survivor of child sexual assault who emerged in the study as the most traumatised category of victim. I lay out how ‘trauma’, specifically the concept of ‘complex trauma’, operates as the conceptual (emotional, relational, neurobiological) link between past abuse and current problems, redefining them not as ‘problems’ but as the symptoms or effects of untreated childhood trauma. I argue that in the local field this deployment is simultaneously enabling and problematic. The production of a subject position of ongoing ontological vulnerability has the effect of repositioning the ‘adult survivor’ outside the socio-political context of their current lives and as such appears misaligned with a feminist ‘regime’ centred on enabling practices and structural gender inequality. However, I demonstrate how this same knowledge of the neurobiological, relational and emotional effects of trauma on the survivor self is used by practitioners as part of their established feminist practices of enabling victims to regain a sense of power and control, of interrupting blame and working for victims at a broader systemic level. The research adds to feminist research and commentary that has drawn critical attention to uptake of trauma in sexual assault work by showing the specificity of how trauma operates in a specific location, and illustrating both the potential and the problematic aspects of trauma as a feminist knowledge practice.


Australian sexual assault service provision trauma sexual assault ‘adult survivor’ feminist knowledge practices Foucauldian methodology 



I would like to thank my PhD supervisor Associate Professor Susan Goodwin for her critical and insightful reading and supportive feedback on earlier drafts of the manuscript, the special issue editors and the anonymous reviewers for their careful and detailed commentary on the original submission.


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© Feminist Review 2016

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  • Suzanne Egan

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