In Defense of the Unsayable | Katie Gaddini


A woman came to see me a few years ago after she had been gang-raped, infected with HIV, and impregnated. I was overseeing a post-natal clinic and providing social work services at a centre in Johannesburg, and women routinely came to see me with their newborn babies after visiting the nurse. This woman, whose name I cannot remember, shared one of the most hideous experiences I had heard as a social worker.

As she sat down in my office, I opened her file and saw that the nurse had noted she was HIV positive and we were helping her keep it a secret. This was not uncommon. Many women feared their male partner’s reprisal for contracting HIV, even though in all the cases I saw the women had acquired it from their partner and his extra-relational dalliances in the first place. The nurse had also written that I was to ask my client about the situation, and so I did. She sputtered out an incoherent story about how no one knew she was HIV positive and her fears that she might transmit HIV to her baby. I looked at the baby, sleeping sweetly in her arms.

There was more: Her baby was not her husband’s child, and she did not think he had infected her with HIV because, 10 months ago, a group of men had broken into her shack when she was home alone and robbed her. She looked down while I connected the dots between pregnancy, HIV and the robbery. “Were you raped?” I blurted out. She shook her head, no, and confusedly, I asked: “Did they force you to have sex with them?” She nodded. “So, you were raped?” Again, she refused what I had offered: the pronouncement of ‘rape’ and all it would entail, the claim to a term that would reverberate through every area of her life.

Words do things assert speech act theorists. In this essay, I question what the word ‘rape’ does, or does not do, for women who have experienced sexual violation. Philosopher Susan Brison (1999), in writing about her own sexual assault, finds:

saying something about a traumatic memory does something to it: defuses it, renders it less intrusive, less disruptive, and transforms it in to narrative memory that can be integrated into a self in the process of being rebuilt’ (p. 202)

However, for my client in Johannesburg, defining the events that took place in her informal settlement as ‘rape’ (and here, ‘assault’ is also included in this lexical category), would trigger a more negative process. Narrating and calling the experience ‘rape’, in this case, would usher her HIV into existence, it would expose the lies she had told on repeat to her family for months, and it would make her vulnerable to loss on many levels.

I reflect on the mistakes I made as a young social worker in order to interrogate the performative doing of the word ‘rape,’ and call attention to a misguided approach to gendered violence research, which effaces a woman’s own use of language. I am arguing for silence and arguing that there are valid reasons why a woman might refuse to label what happened to her body as rape. I am not probing the unspeakability of pain, necessarily, but rather ‘how pain is written into everyday life’ and why sometimes it must be left unspoken (Das, 2010: 140). I am contesting the Euro-centric persuasion that as service providers or researchers it is our job to tell women they have been raped, to affix a label onto the experience, and I am maintaining that women’s resilience sometimes dwells in silence. Staking Susan Brison’s work on the uses of narrative after rape and Veena Das’s (1996) meditation on ‘the register of the imaginary,’ provide contrasting, though not opposing, poles from which to situate my argument (Brison, 1999: 88). 

The split from subject to object is certainly a central concern in cases of sexual violation and Brison utilises speech act theory in her discussion of self-narration after trauma, to claim ‘this process can resubjectify a self objectified by trauma’ (p. 217). She explores how a new narrative of the self develops when the body is violated and seeks to intervene in this narration process by self-directed means. Das (2010) also attends to a re-emerging self after violence, which she calls ‘a self coming into being’ (Das 2010: 141). The slight distinction between the two, according to my reading, is that Brison requires language to regain the self as subject, while for Das, this can occur through other means, for example, endurance. I argue along the lines of the latter, that laying claim to the word ‘rape’ is not the only means toward resubjectification, and moreover, that sometimes the subject would not be able to exist within the language of rape and victimhood, as was the case for my client. Indeed, for some women, invoking this language would usher in a subjecthood and self desperately unwanted.

Without discounting the import of Brison’s work and other trauma models, which have helped many women, I wonder if self-narration and a claim to the word ‘rape’ belie a Western-oriented understanding of shame, stigma, and community involvement. Brison rightly points out that the self is fundamentally relational, however, she does not recognise how this relationality might be practiced differently in other parts of the world, thus blocking women from calling an experience ‘rape.’ My client in Johannesburg operated within a context where women were often blamed for rape and HIV was viewed as a curse from one’s ancestors, attached to one’s entire family. She also lived in a township where she was closely embedded in kinship networks, and where the self was not made outside of that community. The consequences of acknowledging rape in such a context where others are profoundly implicated are just too great. Das (1996) reminds us:

Even the idea that we should recover the narratives of violence becomes problematic when we realize that such narratives cannot be told unless we see the relation between pain and language that a culture has evolved.

I never saw my client again after our initial session. She called me, panicked, from a bedroom at her in-laws’ house, about a month after we met, and said she had run out of formula milk and would have to breastfeed her infant. She knew that breastfeeding carried a risk of HIV transmission and yet in addition to not having access to formula, her family had begun questioning her insistence on using formula and she did not want to further arouse her husband’s suspicions that something was awry. She spoke in a hushed voice and I said I would call the nurse, but by the time I came back, she had hung up.

In remembering this story, I am reminded of the way Sneha Krishnan (2017) describes the experiences of college-aged girls in India, who never said they had been raped but obliquely revealed violation through the dreams they recounted. For these girls, and so many others unable, and unwilling, to acknowledge sexual violation, resilience and coping occurs without this self-identification. I do not know what became of my client, her baby, or the secret she carried inside her. My hope is that as social workers, we are reminded that ‘language absorbs the body just as the body absorbs language’ (Das, 2010, p. 139). That we allow women to refuse, contest, and take up categorical identification with ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ as they see fit; that we trust in women’s ability to navigate language; that we permit silence. I hope that by bridling our usage of the word ‘rape’ we foster a space where women reclaim selfhood and safety.

Katie Gaddini is a research assistant for the Infrastructures of Gendered Violence Research Group at the University of Cambridge. She is a third-year doctoral candidate in the department of Sociology, researching bodily practices among unmarried evangelical women in London. Prior to starting her Ph.D., Katie worked as a social worker in South Africa, Peru, Spain, and the US, focused on gender-based violence prevention and response.


Brison, Susan. “The Uses of Narrative in the Aftermath of Violence.” In On Feminist Ethics and Politics, edited by Claudia Card, First Printing edition., 200–225. Lawrence: Univ Pr of Kansas, 1999.

Das, Veena. “Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain.” Daedalus 125, no. 1 (1996): 67–91.

Krishnan, Sneha. Book Chapter, Forthcoming, 2017.

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