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transcending silence...
Spring 2009 Issue

Sexual Colonialism [1]:
Aboriginal Women and Gendered Violence*

Derek Warwick


Second-wave feminism, for all its contributions, excluded various Othered women, such as Women of Color and lower-income women, from their theories. For years, marginalised women have been addressing the essentialism of white feminists, and their perspectives have been acknowledged and utilized within recent decades. This essay is, in large part, an echoing of these women's arguments. Through an analysis of sexual violence that Aboriginal women endure in Canada, I assert an intersectional approach that considers both race and gender as essential to understanding the colonialist context in which violence gets perpetrated.



Bringing Gendered Violence to Light
Complicating Second-Wave Analyses
Stolen Sisters: The Experiences of Aboriginal Women
Gendered Violence and the Colonization of Aboriginal Peoples
The Call for an Intersectional Analysis
Where Do We Go From Here?


Much of feminist analysis concerning gendered violence has focused primarily on patriarchal systems of power, taking for granted that all women experience violence in the same way and to the same extent. Other approaches to gendered violence have also not accounted for multiple factors that affect women's experiences. For example, the Canadian government's 1993 Violence Against Women survey--the largest survey in the world conducted on gendered violence--failed to address the racial identities of the research participants.[2] In this essay, I argue for an intersectional approach to sexual violence, critiquing analyses of gendered violence that fail to account for race.[3]


Bringing Gendered Violence to Light

When Susan Brownmiller published in 1975 her groundbreaking work, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, it was the first crucial step to understanding rape. In it, she famously wrote that rape "is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear."[4] Indeed, Brownmiller asserts that men rape women because they can; women have bodies that can be penetrated and men have bodies that can penetrate. [5]

Other theorists soon responded with their own theories of rape. Susan Griffin, who contributed to the collection, Feminism and Philosophy, insisted that rape was "culturally taught behaviour"[6] and not rooted in biology. Catherine MacKinnon blurred the lines between consensual heterosexual sex and rape. Michael Davis argued for seeing sexual assault as another form of assault rather than as an act of sexual violence, writing that "our views about consent to battery are likely to be far more reliable than our views about consent to sexual intercourse."[7] In fact, Ann J. Cahill claims a popular approach to sexual assault is to "[rid] rape of its sexual content in order to focus more directly on its more trenchant defining element, violence."[8] Continuing, she writes, "either rape is merely another act of violence … or rape is part and parcel of a larger system of sexual domination."[9] The "larger system of sexual domination" Cahill speaks of is gender-based oppression.


Complicating Second-Wave Analyses

Focusing only on a gender-based analysis of oppression is insufficient, as doing so further marginalizes Othered women, including Women of Colour, by failing to address the context through which their oppressions manifest.

Angela P. Harris problematizes second-wave "colour-blind" approaches to gendered violence through examining feminist legal theory. In particular, she criticizes MacKinnon for her failure to address adequately the experiences of Black women. Using the term "gender essentialism" to describe MacKinnon's approach, Harris asserts that MacKinnon relies on "the notion that a unitary, 'essential' women's experience can be isolated and described independently of race, class, sexual orientation, and other realities of experience."[10] This is problematic because, as Harris argues, the experiences of Black women are often ignored, and gender essentialism further contributes to this problem. Advancing her point further, she writes that "black women have been arguing that their experience calls into question the notion of a unitary 'women's experience'" and this "has been long apparent."[11]

Racialized women experience violence differently than white women, but it would be impossible to recognize this through reading much of the second-wave feminist theory that emerged during the late sixties and seventies. Some second-wave feminist theorists have acknowledged the oppressions racialized women face, but their race is seen as an intensifier of their oppression, rather than altogether separate from the sexism white women encounter. As Harris puts it, "black women are white women, only more so."[12]

Approaching rape from a position of gender essentialism cannot capture the complexities that Black women face; rape is "an experience as deeply rooted in color as in gender." [13] Harris illustrates this fact by noting the historical context of the rape of Black women--from the pre-civil war era when Black women were slaves to much of the twentieth century when many Black women worked as domestic servants for white families, a "job which [makes] them uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape."[14]


Stolen Sisters: The Experiences of Aboriginal Women                    

Although Harris utilizes the experiences of Black women to criticize the second wave's gender essentialism, her analysis easily applies to other racialized women.[15] In the West's racist culture, white experiences are privileged at the expense of silencing racialized Others. In the case of Aboriginal women, they have and continue to face gendered violence in the name of colonialism, a claim I will address shortly.

The Stolen Sisters, a campaign to address the violence Indigenous women face in Canada, published a report as part of Amnesty International in 2004 highlighting their concerns. Citing a Canadian government statistic from 1996, they wrote that "Indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44, with status under the Indian Act, were five times more likely than all other women of the same age to die as a result of violence."[16] Although reliable statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault against Aboriginal women in Canada have not been produced, statistics demonstrate that sexual assault is more likely to be committed on reserves.[17] Additionally, the Stolen Sisters report recognizes the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) as estimating that over five hundred Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing over the past twenty years.[18] Racism plays a key role in gendered violence against Aboriginal women, as these examples demonstrate:

In two separate instances in 1994, 15-year-old Indigenous girls, Roxanna Thiara and Alishia Germaine, were found murdered in Prince George in eastern British Colombia. The body of a third 15-year-old Indigenous girl, Ramona Wilson, who disappeared that same year, was found in Smithers in central British Columbia in April 1995. Only in 2002, after the disappearance of a 26-year-old non-Indigenous woman, Nicola Hoar, while hitchhiking along a road that connects Prince George and Smithers, did media attention focus on the unsolved murders and other disappearances along what has been dubbed "the highway of tears."[19]

In 1996, John Martin Crawford was convicted of murder in the killing of three Indigenous women, Eva Taysup, Shelley Napope, and Calinda Waterhen, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Warren Goulding, one of the few journalists to cover the trial, has commented: "I don't get the sense the general public cares much about missing or murdered aboriginal women. It's all part of this indifference to the lives of aboriginal people. They don't seem to matter as much as white people."[20]

In her article, "Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George," Sherene Razack describes the murder of George, an Aboriginal street worker, by two young, white men. She references Justice Malone's defensive response to the complaints that he had not acknowledged the role of race in the trial:

I suspect the real basis for most of the complaints, including the two that I have dealt with, is the underlying feeling that because the two accused were white and the victim was a First Nations person they received special treatment and the jury's verdict [of manslaughter and not murder] was based on racism. This was certainly the reaction of several First Nations spokesmen and extensive media coverage was given in their remarks in this regard. Furthermore, both accused came from financially secure homes and enjoyed the material benefits associated therewith. Their position in life was in striking contrast to the position of the victim. Every effort was made during the trial by counsel and myself to deal with the case strictly on the basis of relevant evidence and not on the financial and social positions of the accused and their victim or their race. [21]

Together, these examples demonstrate the lack of awareness and interest in Aboriginal women's experiences with violence. When they must be addressed, such as in the case of George's murder, as with second-wave theories, a colour-blind approach is utilized, masking the realities of racialized, gendered violence. This gender essentialist lens must be abandoned in lieu of an intersectional lens that acknowledges the complexities of the interactions between race and gender and that understands how gendered violence against Aboriginal women is situated.


Gendered Violence and the Colonization of Aboriginal Peoples

Sexual violence against Aboriginal women cannot be properly understood solely in regard to a patriarchal comprehension of dominance. Taking race as an intensifier of gendered violence is insufficient as well. Echoing Harris, Kimberle Crenshaw advocates an intersectional approach to race, rather than an additive approach that first examines gender and race oppression separately, and then combines them. [22] The latter approach is inadequate "because the overlap of racism and sexism transforms the dynamics of both."[23] Andrea Smith is clear in asserting her position that the experiences of Women of Colour are qualitatively different than those of white women, and that violence suffered by Native women is not merely violence on the basis of their being women, but also on account of their being Native.[24]

In order to understand the context of sexualized violence against Indigenous women, it is important to first look historically at the treatment of Aboriginal women. Kate Shanley asserts that in Western culture, "Indigenous peoples are a permanent 'present absence' … an 'absence' that reinforces at every turn the conviction that Native peoples are indeed vanishing and that the conquest of Native lands is justified."[25] The absence is accomplished through a "metaphorical transformation of Native bodies into a pollution of which the colonial body must purify itself."[26] Through this construction of Aboriginal peoples as dirty, they are also made sexually polluted. [27] It is via this attitude that some doctors have justified the sterilization of Aboriginal women, a point I return to later.

Another consequence of this conceptualization of Native bodies as polluted is the view that, because they are unclean, they are "sexually violable and 'rapable.'"[28] In Western culture, only the rape of clean, virginal bodies counts. The history of Aboriginal residential schools in Canada illustrates this well. Residential schools were first introduced in Canada in the 1600s, and the last one remained open until 1986.[29] It is estimated that, in some of the schools, "between 48% and 70% of the children were sexually abused, in others 100%."[30] Despite these high estimations and the known employment of sexual offenders within the schools, tort law "has failed to address the unique national debt we owe to aboriginal people arising from residential schooling."[31]

Colonialist Canada has failed Aboriginal peoples as a means to its own survival. It was only in 2008 --over twenty years since the closing of the last residential school--that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a public apology for the confinement of Indigenous peoples to residential schools. "White Canada" is invested in forgetting colonialism in order to ensure its continuing existence. [32] Kristin Lozanski writes:

Whiteness is haunted not only by the historic and continuing colonial order that denies formal recognition of unsanctioned Indigenous institutions and any forms of complex personhood for individual Aboriginals ... but also by the liberal, bourgeois propertied self that is founded upon Indigeneity. Indigeneity is formally recognized only where it can be appropriated into white Canadian-ness; it is welcomed only to the extent that it bolsters the values and assumptions of benevolence and inclusion ... through which Canada and Canadians define themselves. [33]

In fact, it is crucial for Canada's racist patriarchal identity that Indigenous peoples are subordinated while simultaneously not acknowledging its colonialist practices in order to hide the reality: patriarchal society is a dysfunctional one.[34] Karen Warren argues that "patriarchal society is a dysfunctional system that mirrors the dysfunctional nuclear family" and is "based on domination and violence."[35] Prior to Canada's colonization, Europe was a faulty system similar to today's Canada, replete with misogyny, "violence, mass poverty, disease, and war."[36] By comparison, Aboriginal societies at the time were "more peaceful and egalitarian," and the women held high status. [37] As such, Canada's racist, patriarchal system must remain committed to subordinating other, more egalitarian systems in order to appear to be the only feasible option. [38]

This act of intentional forgetting is further exemplified by Canada's control over the reproductive health of Aboriginal women. Indeed, Aboriginal women threaten Canada's colonialist, patriarchal system through reproducing future generations of Indigenous peoples, who may further threaten the stability of colonialism.[39] Historically, colonisers would simply kill Aboriginal women and children as a means to eradicate Indigenous peoples, but methods have changed alongside time. Sterilization practices have been used on Aboriginal women without their informed consent, and some reservations had sterilization rates "as high as eighty percent."[40] While informed consent policies have now been implemented, the sterilization of Aboriginal women remains a problem, through long-acting hormonal contraceptives such as Norplant and Depo-Provera. [41]


The Call for an Intersectional Analysis

Based on the above examples, a gender essentialist analysis of Indigenous women's experiences cannot begin to demonstrate the complexities therein. On the same note, neither would a purely race-based analysis be able to account for all aspects of Aboriginal women's experiences. It is obvious, then, that to adequately understand the oppression of Indigenous women, an intersectional approach that accounts for race and gender (and class, ability, age, sexuality, etc.) is needed. A gender essentialist approach that conceptualizes race as an intensifier:

inevitably produces an ahistorical account of the complexity of sex and race and black and indigenous women's experiences of sexual assault, since it fails to locate rape within the history of race relations over the centuries – such as the sexual exploitation of black female slaves by white slave owners in America and the use of Aboriginal women as sex slaves in early colonial Australia. [42]

In terms of gendered violence, a gender essentialist analysis cannot acknowledge that racialized women will be subjected to violence differently and in varying spaces. Such an approach ignores, as Cossins illustrates, crucial historical contexts such as slavery, and fails to recognize prostitution as a site of violence for many Aboriginal women. An approach that cannot account for these experiences should simply be abandoned.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Theorizing about sexual violence does little to aid the women who require help unless the theory is taken beyond the classroom or the textbook. Although the Canadian government is doing little to end the violence, there are a number of grassroots and organizational efforts that are making this goal a commitment. [43] Momentum has been building around this issue since 2002, and in 2005, Status of Women Canada granted the Sisters in Spirit five years' funding to mobilize around the problem. [44] So where does the theory help Aboriginal women?

Within the Stolen Sisters report there a few recommendations for ending violence committed against Indigenous women.  The first is to "acknowledge the seriousness of the problem."[45] To acknowledge the severity of the problem, it is important first to understand it, again suggesting that an intersectional analysis is crucial. Through efforts to inform the general public about this issue, it is possible to educate them on the severity and the nature of the problem as well, and perhaps even grant them a more complex understanding of the relations between race and gender.

Ultimately, however, the most important advancements accomplished by an intersectional analysis of race and gender may be rooted in how it is taken up by feminist theorists. These are not new ideas; an intersectional approach has already been utilized to a significant extent by feminist theorists outside of those discussed here, but it could be taken much further. The popularity of essentialist theories is dangerous because they further contribute to the marginalization of Othered women by refusing to acknowledge crucial factors in their oppressions. It is vital that feminists adopt intersectional analyses in order to understand and fully account for the experiences of all women.

*This essay is in keeping with the author's conscious choice to capitalize certain common nouns. It also maintains the original Canadian spellings. [Return]


 [1] I am borrowing from Andrea Smith's essay, "Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples," Hypatia 18, no. 2 (2003). [return]

[2] Statistics Canada, "Violence Against Women Survey." (1993), (accessed October 20, 2008) [return]

[3] I do not wish to ignore other factors that would contribute to a complete intersectional analysis of gendered violence, such as class, sexuality, ability, size, age, etc., but those factors are beyond the scope of this essay. [return]

[4] Cited in Ann J. Cahill, Rethinking Rape (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 16. [return]

[5] Ibid., 21.[return]

[6] Ibid., 28.[return]

[7] Ibid., 31.[return]

[8] Ibid.[return]

[9] Ibid., 32.[return]

[10]Angela P. Harris, "Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory," Stanford Law Review 42, no.1 (1990): 585.[return]

[11]Ibid., 586.[return]

[12]Ibid., 592.[return]

[13] Ibid., 598.[return]

[14] Ibid., 599.[return]

[15] But, of course, racialized women will continue to have varying experiences, including women with the same racial identity.[return]

[16] Amnesty International, "Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada." (2004): 23. (accessed October 20, 2008)[return]

[17] Holly Johnson, "Measuring Violence Against Women: Statistical Trends 2006," Statistics Canada (2006), (accessed October 20, 2008) [return]

[18] Amnesty International, "Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada." (2004): 24. (accessed October 20, 2008)[return]

[19] Ibid., 23-4.[return]

[20] Ibid., 24.[return]

[21] Sherene H. Razack, "Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George," Canadian Journal of Law & Society 15, no. 2 (2000): 128.[return]

[22] Cited in Andrea Smith, "Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples," Hypatia 18, no. 2 (2003): 70.[return]

[23] Ibid.[return]

[24] Ibid., 71.[return]

[25] Ibid., 72.[return]

[26] Ibid.[return]

[27] Ibid., 73.[return]

[28] Ibid.[return]

[29] Bruce Feldthusen, "Civil Liability for Sexual Assault in Aboriginal Residential Schools: The Baker Did It," Canadian Journal of Law & Society 22, no. 1 (2007): 62.[return]

[30] Ibid.[return]

[31] Ibid., 67 and 90.[return]

[32] Kristin Lozanski, "Memory and the Impossibility of Whiteness in Colonial Canada," Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007): 224.[return]

[33] Ibid.[return]

[34] Smith, 76.[return]

[35] Ibid.[return]

[36] Ibid.[return]

[37] Ibid., 77.[return]

[38] Ibid., 78.[return]

[39] Ibid.[return]

[40] Ibid., 79.[return]

[41] Ibid.[return]

[42] Anne Cossins, "Saints, Sluts and Sexual Assault: Rethinking the Relationship Between Sex, Race, and Gender." Social Legal Studies 12, no. 1 (2003): 90.[return]

[43] Anita Olsen Harper, "Is Canada Peaceful and Safe for Aboriginal Women?" Canadian Woman Studies 25, no.1-2 (2006): 36.[return]

[44] Ibid.[return]

[45] Amnesty International, "Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada." (2004): 64. (accessed October 20, 2008) [return]


Amnesty International. "Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada." (2004), (accessed October 20, 2008).

Cahill, Ann J. Rethinking Rape. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Cossins, Anne. "Saints, Sluts and Sexual Assault: Rethinking the Relationship Between Sex, Race, and Gender." Social Legal Studies 12, no. 1 (2003): 77-103.

Feldthusen, Bruce. "Civil Liability for Sexual Assault in Aboriginal Residential Schools: The Baker Did It." Canadian Journal of Law & Society 22, no. 1 (2007): 61-91.

Harper, Anita Olsen. "Is Canada Peaceful and Safe for Aboriginal Women?" Canadian Woman Studies 25, no. 1-2 (2006): 33-39.

Harris, Angela P. "Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory." Stanford Law Review 42 (1990): 581-616.

Johnson, Holly. "Measuring Violence Against Women: Statistical Trends 2006." Statistics Canada (2006): 1-97. (accessed October 20, 2008).

Lozanski, Kristin. "Memory and the Impossibility of Whiteness in Colonial Canada." Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007): 223-225.

Razack, Sherene H. "Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George." Canadian Journal of Law & Society 15, no. 2 (2000): 91-130.

Smith, Andrea. "Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples." Hypatia 18, no. 2 (2003): 70-85.

Statistics Canada. "Violence Against Women Survey." (1993), (accessed October 20, 2008).


Edited by Anna Letko & Christine Cretser