This paper explores a range of stories that aim to account for the origins of gender domination and sexual violence. First, sociobiological thought experiments which centre ‘sexed’ bodily differences in a primitive ‘state of nature’. Secondly, sociocultural theories of how gendered subjectification occurs within kinship systems through the entry into language. Thirdly, socioeconomic analyses of the exchange of women during the Neolithic agricultural revolution. Fourthly, sociopolitical narratives highlighting the emergence of ‘warlike’ states in the Bronze Age and after. I ask: what do these different stories offer our understanding of sexual violence? Both the sociobiological and sociocultural stories ultimately present accounts of oppression without exploitation: in other words, they tell us how sexual violence occurs but not why, explaining gender domination in terms of itself and collapsing into a biological essentialism which is arguably colonial in provenance. Using the socioeconomic and sociopolitical origin stories, however, sexual violence can be theorised as a strategy of enclosure, which treats women’s bodies as territory to be used for economic ends, or to be conquered as part of political projects. This is not offered as a definitive account or alternative origin story, but as an attempt to understand what sexual violence might do within shifting and fluid social relations at points when hierarchy emerges out of difference.
Professor Alison Phipps is Professor Sociology at the University of Newcastle, UK. (formerly Professor of Gender Studies at Sussex University) Her research is broadly concerned with the relationships between heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and gender-based violence, and how mainstream feminist theory and activism can divest from racial capitalism and become truly transformative. Former chair of the Feminist and Women's Studies Association UK and Ireland and co-founder of the Safe Studies Network (now Universities Against Gender-Based Violence), co-lead of the Feminist Gender Equality Network's gender-based violence group and one of the patrons of the Association of Gender Studies in Africa. She recently launched a new collective called Abolition Feminism for Ending Sexual Violence with colleagues at the University of Newcastle.