Resisting the binarism of victim and agent: Critical reflections on 20 years of scholarship on young women and heterosexual practices in South African contexts
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The last 20 years have seen a proliferation of research, spurred by the imperatives of the HIV epidemic and reportedly high rates of gender-based violence, on heterosexual practices in the South African context. Research has focused on how poverty, age and gender within specific cultural contexts shape sexual agency and provide a context for unequal, coercive and violent practices for young women. This paper takes stock of what we currently ‘know’ about heterosex and critically reflects on the political and ideological effects of such research, specifically in the light of young women’s agency. A primary concern is that efforts to address gender inequality and the normative gender practices that shape inequitable heterosexual practices may have functioned to reproduce the very discourses that underpin such inequalities. The paper ‘troubles’ the victim–agency binarism as it has been played out in South African research on heterosex, raising concerns about how the research may reproduce gendered, classed and raced othering practices and discourses and bolstered regulatory and disciplinary responses to young women’s sexualities. The paper argues for critical, feminist self- reflexivity that should extend to re-thinking methodologies entrenched in frameworks of authority and surveillance.