Stephanie R. Larson

Oct 8, 2023

What It Feels Like

Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture

Pennsylvania State University Press 2021

What it feels like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture (Penn State Press, 2021) by Dr. Stephanie Larson interrogates an underexamined reason for our failure to abolish rape in the United States: the way we communicate about it. Using affective and feminist materialist approaches to rhetorical criticism, Dr. Larson examines how discourses about rape and sexual assault rely on strategies of containment, denying the felt experiences of victims and ultimately stalling broader claims for justice.

Investigating anti-pornography debates from the 1980s, Violence Against Women Act advocacy materials, sexual assault forensic kits, public performances, and the #MeToo movement, Dr. Larson reveals how our language privileges male perspectives and, more deeply, how it is shaped by systems of power—patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and heteronormativity. Interrogating how these systems work to propagate masculine commitments to “science” and “hard evidence,” Dr. Larson finds that US culture holds a general mistrust of testimony by women, stereotyping it as “emotional.” But she also gives us hope for change, arguing that testimonies grounded in the bodily, material expression of violation are necessary for giving voice to victims of sexual violence and presenting, accurately, the scale of these crimes. Larson makes a case for visceral rhetorics, theorizing them as powerful forms of communication and persuasion.

Demonstrating the communicative power of bodily feeling, Dr. Larson challenges the long-held commitment to detached, distant, rationalized discourses of sexual harassment and rape. Timely and poignant, the book offers a much-needed corrective to our legal and political discourses.

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose doctoral work focused on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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