Rape and the Transmission of Affect

An Indian protestor reacts as police officials intervene

Not least of the trauma of being raped is its lingering emotional residue. Physical wounds heal, but emotional wounds often do not.

Victims can feel compelled to wash themselves repeatedly, as if physical cleansing could somehow penetrate beneath the skin to the emotional wound within.

They feel ‘dirty’. They feel haunted or occupied by a shadowy presence which they must find a way of exorcising.

This is rather more than the predictable feeling of shame that Judeo-Christian morality trains women to feel when ‘violated’. [I will address that in a day or so.] It is something else.

In her book, The Transmission of Affect, Teresa Brennan argues that the rapist transfers his toxic emotions—anger, shame, guilt, impotence and feelings of worthlessness—to the victim and feeds, vampire-like, on her life force. The rapist feels empowered; the victim feels worthless. It is this alien emotional presence she feels and wants rid of.

The notion of ‘transmission of affect’, however, is no metaphor. There is no ‘as if’ about it. It’s a real process. A depressed person, for example, is a black hole of negative emotional energy. He or she can drain friends and family of energy without stirring a muscle. Emotions can pass from person to person quicker than a forest fire through tinder dry woodland.

That this happens is not in doubt. Unit 5 of this course, Emotions, Bodies, Societies, provides the means of understanding how this happens.

Teresa Brennan died before her book was published; struck by a car while crossing a road near her home in Florida. She was 51.


Teresa Brennan. 2003. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

A useful introduction to Brennan’s ideas is:

Jane Caputi. ‘Take Back What Doesn’t Belong to Me’: Sexual Violence, Resistance and the ‘Transmission of Affect’. Women’s Studies International Forum. Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 1-14.

Caputi draws her title from a Sinead O’Connor song. Here is another one:

One thought on “Rape and the Transmission of Affect

  1. Pingback: On experiencing myself as an unhealthy person | Self, Soul and Writer

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