»My plight is not unique.«

Sexual violence in conflict zones: a roundtable discussion

What conceptions of gender underlie military policy towards sexual violence? Is the specific form the violence takes determined by the type of warfare? To what extent is sexual violence in wartime different to that in peacetime? And what does a closer examination of male to male sexual violence add to our understanding?

A conversation between SVAC members. With Miranda Alison, Debra Bergoffen, Pascale Bos, Louise du Toit, Regina Mühlhäuser, and Gaby Zipfel.

July 2008, Hamburg Institute of Social Research.

Original version in German, first published in Mittelweg 36 1/2009 (pdf / print) English Version, first published in Eurozine, 2 September 2009 (pdf / print)


Gaby Zipfel: Empirical data from different theatres of war reveals that the frequency and the forms of sexual violence vary. In some conflicts, sexual violence is widespread, in others it is a fairly rare. Sexual violence can increase, but also decline in the course of a conflict. In some cases, sexual violence seems to represent an independent phenomenon; in others, it constitutes one step in the development of military violence, which is usually characterized by the triad “murder-plunder-rape”. Sexual violence can be part of a military strategy, but also the result of an escalation of violence or the dissolution of limits to permissible conduct in a specific context. Military leaders expect escalations of violence and the abandonment of norms that limit accepted forms of violence. Strategic calculations can thus aim at promoting sexual violence as a weapon in war, provided it is regarded as combat-effective. At the same time, armed groups enforce effective sanctions against their combatants, in order to ensure military discipline.

Does the occurrence or absence of sexual violence depend on military tactics? Which conceptions of gender and violence underlie military policy towards sexual violence? Is there a latent agreement that men have a natural, justifiable access to bodies that are marked as female, regardless of the specificities of a particular cultural-normative context?

Louise du Toit: War is a boys’ game. War and the figure of the warrior are closely entwined with hegemonic and hetero-normative masculinities. In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry makes us intensely aware of the extent to which traditional and modern warfare take place on a symbolic plane – the extent to which they are imaginary constructs.1 The identity of the warrior, soldier or freedom fighter is closely tied up with the image of the hero, who challenges and risks, but also wields death for some supposed greater good. The Italian feminist Adriana Cavarero sees the heroic risking of personal death as a cornerstone of idealized masculinity in the West.

In material terms, of course, armed conflicts are often about the expansion of male-owned power-bases, including access to land, minerals, and other resources such as oil. To my mind, therefore, the very notion of “war” needs to be interrogated before one looks at the set of questions at hand. For gangs of youngsters on the Cape Flats, or gangs of criminals in Johannesburg, one could say that, irrespective of the official status of the country as a whole, their lives are characterized by perpetual warfare, and indeed that is the language they themselves employ. The metaphor of war dominates their lives and so crowds out other possibilities for them. South Africa as a nation-state need not be at war with any other state for these young men to inhabit, on a permanent basis, a parallel universe that constitutes a war zone. Built into the rhetoric of war is the notion or value of survival, which legitimizes conduct that would not be permissible otherwise. In other words, war per definition entails an exceptional situation or period that calls for exceptional sacrifices and exceptional conduct.

In the apartheid South African “border war” between Namibia and Angola, as another example, the masculinized war and the exceptional sacrifices it demanded from those young male soldiers were consistently contrasted with the feminine world of “women, girl-friends, wives and children”, who remained “safely at home”. These latter were seen as the vulnerable group, the greater good for which exceptional deeds were needed, including all the usual atrocities of ordinary warfare such as killing, torture, the destruction of villages on the Angolan side of the border, and so on. In other words, the exceptions that war allows for and creates are simultaneously deeds of self-sacrifice and deeds of violence and cruelty; often, of course, these are complicated in real life. War is thus seen as a situation of emergency and urgency: the means are usually justified by the ends, whatever rhetoric is used to cloth those ends. In my understanding, it is this exceptionality associated with the war situation that leads to escalating levels of sexual violence. Since time immemorial, women’s sexualized bodies have been seen as part of the soldier’s booty. It is not very different today. The masculine project of war is overtly constructed (whether rape is actively encouraged, or limited, or whatever), it usually has a subtext about how that sacrifice entitles the hero/warrior/soldier to female sexuality.

War even plays the role of initiating young men and boys into adulthood, and mature masculinity is often culturally and religiously conflated with sexual control of women. A vivid example of this is the way in which female ANC “freedom fighters” or “comrades” were detained as sex slaves in camps around southern Africa; this was their way of “contributing to the struggle”. The women who wanted to be part of this armed struggle had to accept men’s terms for entering “male territory”, and clearly, part of this tacit agreement was sexual availability. During the rape trial of Jacob Zuma, the current president of the ANC, his struggle credentials were often quoted to support the idea that he was entitled to women’s bodies, and was thus in a weird sense “incapable” of being a rapist.

A final note on this theme: if one understands rape as I do as a means of asserting control and of diminishing and thereby controlling women (and other feminized categories of people), then the question as to when does sexual violence becomes military weapon that is purposefully employed is in a sense answered. In my understanding, sexual violence is always a means of control and a political weapon that seeks to destroy the foundation of the victim’s sense of self and world, and, at the same time, to inflate or enhance the perpetrator’s sense of self and world. I would thus in a sense want to invert the perspective by arguing that rape in “peace time” is an assault of the magnitude of waging a war. Certainly in SA, rape rates have remained fairly constant from the time of the near civil war in the 1970s and 1980s to today, fifteen years into a democratic dispensation.

Debra Bergoffen: It seems to me that rape as a military strategy is linked to the global epidemic of violence against women in so-called peacetime; and this it seems to me needs to be understood in terms of patriarchal gender codes of masculinity and feminity. These codes are lived in historically and culturally specific ways, but these specifics also share certain structural similarities – similarities that account for the power differentials between men and women in societies that seem to have nothing in common. A common feature of these gender codes is that they identify masculinity with strength and equate strength with bodily power and the capacity for violence. Using these criteria of strength, women are gendered as weak. Men and women are then related to each other, coupled, through the category of protection. A man establishes his masculinity, at least in part, through his ability to protect “his” women – through his ability to defend them against the violence of other men. This coupling establishes women gendered as vulnerable to the violence of men – as potential victims who become real victims if there are no men to protect them. This symbolic structure has material consequences. Civilian women’s bodies can be transformed into weapons of war, not because their bodies are weaker than those of elderly men or young boys, but because raping them strips “their” men of their masculinity – their status as protectors of their communities. Furthermore, so long as the reproductive powers of women’s bodies are controlled by the name of the father, the generative powers of women can be stolen by enemy rapists. This was the meaning of the Bosnian-Serb rapists taunt of Muslim women. They declared that the children born of these rapes would be Bosnian Serbs.

In the debate about masculinity, some have argued that the violence embedded in codes of masculinity is not that they equate masculinity with strength, but in equating strength with violence and domination. They believe that we can end the epidemic of violence against women if we teach boys that strong men relate to women by honouring and respecting them, not by threatening them or dominating them. Others argue that recognizing rape as an illegal weapon of war, that is as a violation of the proper use of masculine strength, will provide the necessary sanctions. In both cases, the gendering of men as “strong” is not seen as the problem. Rather, the problem is seen as a failure to distinguish proper from improper understandings of masculine strength.

These two approaches to violence against women and wartime rape appeared in two seemingly unrelated pages in the 15 June 2008 (US Father’s Day) issue of the Sunday New York Times: one a full-page ad by a group called Founding Fathers, the other an editorial column by Nicolas D. Kristoff, entitled “The Weapon of Rape”. Both have the same objective – to end the epidemic of violence against women. Kristoff alerted us to a special UN Security Council session scheduled for 19 June 2008 on sexual violence, which he believed had the potential to move mass wartime rape “from an unmentionable into a serious foreign policy issue”. (It subsequently met and unanimously passed a resolution doing this.)2 He holds international bodies responsible for ending sexual violence. The Founding Fathers hold individuals responsible. They ask us to dedicate ourselves to molding fathers of the future who will say “no more” to sexual violence. These future fathers will not equate strength with violence. They will respect and honour women. These two approaches to sexual violence, one domestic, peacetime and individual, the other international, wartime and collective, intersect in the 2001 judgment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which held individual Bosnian-Serb soldiers responsible for carrying out rape and sexual slavery orders.3 The court assumed that individuals have the will and the moral obligation to disobey illegal or immoral orders. The Founding Fathers assume that the source of this will lies in the ways in which we construct masculine identities. They argue that a concept of masculinity that entails honouring and respecting women, and which refuses to equate strength with violence, will stop the violence. The ICTY, moving along similar lines, argues that honouring women entails an obligation to protect them.

I think these well-intended messages are problematic: identifying strength with masculinity, and linking honouring women with the obligation to protect them still genders women as weak – as vulnerable – as potential victims. Honoured women will not necessarily be recognized as possessed of integrity in their own right. Honour is a very slippery concept. It needs to be deserved. In peacetime there are written and unwritten codes of conduct women need to uphold (e.g. chastity in some cultures, not going out alone at night in others) in order to be deserving of honour and worthy of having their honour protected. In wartime, enemy women are neither recognized as deserving of honour nor seen as candidates for protection.

Gaby Zipfel: The way in which war is waged is not a historical constant. Do certain forms of warfare promote specific forms of sexual violence?

Debra Bergoffen: Martin Shaw, in War and Genocide, distinguishes traditional wars of previous centuries from the degenerate and genocidal wars of today.4 In traditional wars the objective was to defeat the enemy. In genocidal wars the objective is to destroy the enemy. This difference is crucial. In traditional wars the enemy was the army of another state or governing body. Thus the soldier-civilian distinction. Degenerate and genocidal wars know no such distinction; here the enemy is the people. There are no protected innocents. Recent data indicating that in today’s wars it is safer to be a member of the military than to be a civilian woman confirms this state of affairs. So far as I know, sexual violence was not a weapon of war in traditional wars, and this may explain why wartime rape, identified as a war crime for centuries, was rarely if ever prosecuted or taken seriously; for strictly speaking it was not a part of war, not something that states or militaries had to take account of in their war-waging or peace-making. Once degenerate wars become the norm, things change. Terrorizing the enemy population becomes essential. Furthermore, once wars become genocidal, terrorizing the enemy population is not enough. Humiliation emerges as a tactic. Now sexual violence rises to the status of a military and foreign policy issue; for sexual violence is an extremely effective way of humiliating, demoralizing, and dehumanizing a people – of demonstrating that they are not worthy of existence. Torture and murder terrorize a population. Rape humiliates it.

What distinguishes rape from torture and murder as a military strategy is that a raped woman (but not a tortured man) is a humiliation to herself, her men, her community. He is martyred. She is degraded. That a community is terrorized if one its men is murdered or tortured, but humiliated if one of its women is raped, has everything to do with gender identities. It reveals the ways in which the Achilles heel of patriarchal social structures lies in its subordination of women and its, sometimes but not always, camouflaged threat of violence against women. The very existence of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979 (CEDAW) is evidence of this.5 In wartime sexual violence, enemy men speak to each other through their ability to violate each other’s women. In traditional wars, where rape was understood as an aberration (albeit legitimate) of the spoils of victory or as accidental collateral damage, the critical role played by violence against women, whether threatened or actual, was hidden. In genocidal wars, where sexual violence cannot be called accidental or aberrant, the violence of patriarchy cannot be veiled.

Miranda Alison: I would like to come back to the question about the strategic implementation of sexual violence: In some situations of ethnic or ethno-national conflict, sexual violence against the enemy sometimes seems to be so widespread and so systematic that it is hard not to view this as a deliberate military strategy. Indeed, there are particular cases where it does seem clear that mass rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used strategically – for example in the formation of Bangladesh, the break-up of Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda. It is not always clear, however, at what level of military command sexual violence as a strategy originates from, and proving it was a deliberate strategy is difficult. Sometimes, however, the argument over whether or not the highest echelons of a particular military in a particular war actually issued direct, deliberate orders to their subordinates to carry out sexual violence against the enemy can be unproductive. If a climate is created within a particular military, or in the context of a particular war, in which sexual violence is encouraged or at least tolerated, if not actually ordered, then the outcome remains the same for the victims.

Much work has been done demonstrating that connections between masculinity and being a warrior have been and continue to be widely cross-cultural, across time periods; that female aggressiveness tends to be frowned upon; and that the training of soldiers in state militaries usually involves misogyny and homophobia. There is an argument, then, that militarized masculinity involves the mobilization of a particular form of violent hegemonic masculinity which is likely to lead to sexual violence against women. In wartime, perpetrating sexual violence – at least against the “enemy” – becomes a more socially acceptable feature of (militarized) masculinity. Lisa Price asserts that militarized nationalism, “does not simply allow men to be violent, but compels them so to be. In militarized societies […] men who resist violence are suspect. Not only is their loyalty to the state [or nation] questioned, but also their loyalty to (heterosexual) masculinity.”6

Up to a point I agree with this, but this does not explain the enormous variation in occurrence, form, and violence of wartime sexual assault. This variation is sometimes overlooked. Furthermore, there is perhaps an implicit presumption here that all militaries are the same. They are not. Arguably, there is a high degree of global similarity when it comes to the training of state militaries, which may not be surprising when one considers how they have developed (ex-colonial powers passing on institutional structures and training to their newly independent ex-colonies; the global inter-connections between different state militaries in terms of joint training exercises, weapons sales and so forth). Nevertheless, not all state militaries exhibit exactly the same patterns in terms of the levels and types of sexual violence they mete out.

When it comes to non-state “rebel” military groups, things are further complicated; to speak of “the military” in universal terms becomes even more fraught with problems. In some of these militaries, such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, there is an explicit commitment to women’s equality and strong constraints on (and very low actual incidence of) sexual violence. Not all military groups are exactly the same in their gender constructs, their ideologies, their training, their treatment of female soldiers, their relationships to “enemy” women and – especially in cases of ethnic conflict – their relationships to their “own” civilian populations.

Just as militaries are not all the same, neither are all wars. I am wary of the sometimes too-easy distinction drawn between “old wars” and “new wars” or “traditional wars” and “contemporary wars”. Nevertheless, although sexual violence has been a feature of most wars we have records of (again, with variations), it does seem that as wars began to be “privatized” from the second half of the twentieth century, and hence began to affect more civilians and to draw in more types of actors, blurring the old home front/war front boundary, sexual violence does seem to have increased – or at least to have taken on new forms in terms of a greater strategic use. It also seems to be particularly prevalent in ethnic conflicts, though it is by no means restricted to this type of conflict, nor does it appear in every such conflict. Again, this variation needs explaining.

Gaby Zipfel: Ethnic conflicts play a central role in contemporary wars. How do ethnic and gender attributes intersect?

Miranda Alison: In ethno-national conflicts, the intersection of gender with ethnicity is particularly significant but this intersection is important in all wars. In wartime the idea of indiscriminate sexual violence is extremely suspect (though arguably this notion can be problematic in “peacetime” as well). In contemporary armed conflicts, particularly though not exclusively ethno-national, rape is intentionally committed by specific men against specific women (and men) – namely “enemy” women (and men) – and therefore cannot be seen as indiscriminate; even the Geneva Convention’s definition of “indiscriminate” attacks against civilians (those that are not directed at a specific military objective) often no longer applies.

Admittedly sexual violence against “the enemy” is not the only type of sexual violence to occur in wartime; there are often also cases of men raping members of their “own” ethno-national group, their “own side” in the war. However these seem usually to be less frequent and much less likely to be systematic. Sexual violence against one’s “own” women seems most often to occur when women are seen to be political traitors (refusing to go along with prevailing ethnic chauvinism, for example), social traitors (in romantic relationships with members of the “Other’), or are victims of the spillover violence that occurs when a society becomes highly militarized.

One of the reasons that “enemy” women are particularly targeted for sexual violence by militaries is because of women’s – perceived or actual – vital importance in constructing and maintaining the ethno-national group. Because of women’s role as biological reproducers of the collectivity, as reproducers of the boundaries of the collectivity, as transmitters of its culture and as signifiers of ethno-national difference, they are likely to be targeted in attempts to destroy a collectivity or assert dominance over it. As Ruth Seifert puts it, the female body is “a symbolic representation of the body politic” and rape of women is “the symbolic rape of the body of [the] community”.7 She has demonstrated that wartime sexual violence functions as a form of communication between men and a measure of victory and of masculinity, with women’s bodies the vehicle of communication, the site of battle and the conquered territory.

Pascale Bos: Regarding future research, it may be paramount to distinguish those cases of wartime rape and mass rape that have a component to them that is informed by the perpetrators’ notions of supposed racial/ethnic/national inferiority of the (either female or male) victim from those cases in which this does not seem to play a central role. I thus argue that we should not consider wartime rape to be merely an extension of “everyday rape”. An explanation for wartime rape that accounts only for male against female violence and which is ahistorical and non specific does little to aid our understanding of what motivates and perpetuates the cycles of wartime sexual violence.

Racial/ethnic/nationalist hatred aids in the dehumanizing of the enemy’s army and its civilian population and makes for an effective tool in warfare. Furthermore, this hatred allows individual soldiers and military leadership to lower their inhibitions about the use of potentially excessive or illegal force and sexual violence, as one can find internal justification for it. For instance, Lynda E. Boose writes on the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina: “When taken to the extremes of collective cultural denial, the vision of the nation/self as involved in an ongoing epic struggle to retain its heroic uniqueness – inevitably constructed around fantasies of racial purity – is what allows people to reach such euphoric heights of nationalist paranoia that it can imagine it necessary to “ethnically cleanse” a land of its “others” when the others are, in reality, ancestrally identical to the cleansers.”8

In general, one of the most complicated factors in an investigation of wartime sexual violence is that dependable data is hard to come by. We have unreliable data from the armies that are perpetrating this violence on both the level of military leadership and of the individual military who may have engaged in this violence (or witnessed it); there are obvious disadvantages to revealing this information (both a fear of prosecution and the assumption that the home front may disapprove of sexual violence, especially if it occurs as part of a military strategy). We have the additional complication that violence of a sexual nature tends to induce shame in its victims and/or in the victims’ families and communities, which results in a high degree of under-reporting of this kind of crime. Many victims also fear that the crime will not be taken seriously and prosecuted properly or at all, and in the case of a civil war may fear retribution from the perpetrator, who may still be among the victim’s community.

Regina Mühlhäuser: Despite or rather because of this lack of sources, future research should try to understand the varying forms of the phenomenon: the different acts of sexual violence, the particular extent, the military calculations, the ways in which sexual violence is treated after the end of a war, and so on. Regarding state militaries, especially in western countries, there has been some research lately, and we need to take a look at structural similarities, especially if – as Gaby suggested – we want to evaluate the development of internal justification. In western armies, part of the military training that prepares the soldier for combat generally includes unleashing, as Ulrich Bröckling put it, the “individual’s potential for violence”, yet at the same time requires that this potential be kept under control.9 Consequently, the individual soldier is targeted by a maximum of disciplinary techniques. The military as a total institution punishes perceptible deviations more rigorously than other institutions. In return for this required subjection, however, the army offers compensation. As Jan Phillip Reemtsma put it, the order “You shall!” is accompanied by the concession “You may!” Soldiers are not only disciplined more rigorously than other people, they are also – at least during wartime – free to take more liberties.10

In many wars, one of these “liberties” is the perpetration of male-to-female sexual violence. Often, armed leaderships act on the assumption that this is a quasi-natural consequence of male sexuality, i.e. the biologically necessary result of male sexual urges. In addition, military commanders often asses heterosexual satisfaction as beneficial to the war effort on several levels: symbolically – especially in combat situations, male virility was and still is regarded as an expression of physical power and collective superiority. Regarding the wellbeing of the individual – during WWII, military doctors in Germany as well as in Japan established that a man would be mentally and physically strengthened by heterosexual encounters. Sexual satisfaction, thus their line of reasoning, would help soldiers endure the hardships of the war and contribute to an improvement of their military performance. Furthermore, regarding war and occupation policies – in various conflict zones, military commanders count on the fact that an (almost) unlimited opportunity for (male soldiers) to gain sexual satisfaction will bind the individual to the army and strengthen the cohesion of military units.

While military authorities clearly appreciate these “positive effects”, they also fear a number of risks: the growing inability to control the individual soldier; the spreading lack of discipline; the erosion of military units; the resistance of the enemy population; the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and so on. In general, armed leaderships thus see a need to control sexual encounters – sexual violence as well as prostitution and consensual relations.

The measures armed groups implement in order to control sexual violence vary at different stages of a war (invasion, occupation, retreat) and the tactics in different situations and territories. Elisabeth Jean Wood has pointed out that the implementation, interpretation and enforcement of these measures do not represent a top-down affair, but are negotiated within and between different levels of military hierarchy: the armed leadership, the small military units and the individual soldier.11

The question as to when sexual violence becomes a purposefully employed military weapon is difficult to address. For instance, we have to define “purposeful”: Does sexual violence represent a purposefully employed weapon only when a military command orders the soldiers to rape? Or can we speak of a purposefully employed weapon when small military units expect that certain combat situations will involve sexual violence?

Susan Brownmiller wrote in 1975 that the German Wehrmacht and the Schutzstaffel (SS) employed rape as a systematic weapon during the war and the Holocaust. On the contrary, Birgit Beck and David Raub Snyder have argued that rapes by Wehrmacht soldiers cannot be considered a military strategy: first, because we do not know any document that ordered German men to rape; and secondly, because the Wehrmacht laws defined sexual violence as a crime against military discipline and “racial laws”; in some cases, military judges did indeed sentence rapists to serve prison terms.12

However it seems premature to conclude that acts of sexual violence during the German war of annihilation in the Soviet Union were especially scarce. If nothing else, it would be to ignore innumerable testimonies of female and male eyewitnesses, which indicate an immense extent of different forms of sexual violence in every territory and at every stage of the war and the occupation. There are, for instance, numerous cases in which members of the Wehrmacht and the SS used coerced undressing or sexual torture during interrogations. And while the Wehrmacht did devise measures to control and regulate soldierly sexuality, these were only enforced in a very limited number of cases. I would argue that exactly this lack of enforcement opened up spaces of opportunity in which sexual violence became an accepted and normal part of the everyday situation of war and combat. Ultimately, I would argue that Brownmiller’s descriptions of the systematic occurrence of sexual violence, despite the objections that might correctly be made, cannot be dismissed as outdated.

Gaby Zipfel: In general, sexual violence is used as a term to describe crimes committed by men against women. Up to now, the fact that male bodies not only have the power to violate but are also vulnerable, and indeed regularly exposed to sexual violence, has been a sort of a taboo. Does closer examination of sexual violence against men change our general analysis of wartime sexual violence?

Miranda Alison: Sexual violence against men in wartime – as in peacetime – may be more common than we have realized or acknowledged. This sexual violence is also both gendered and ethnicized. Rather than being perceived as a homosexual – and thus less masculine – act, male to male rape is often a highly masculinized act for the perpetrator and his audience, asserting power and masculinity, whilst the victim is feminized, reflecting the construction of female sexuality as passive and male sexuality as active. In wartime, male to male rape (as male to female rape) humiliates and feminizes the victim whilst asserting the perpetrator’s dominant (heterosexual, ethno-national) masculinity. The ethno-national element means that symbolically, the victim’s national identity is also feminized and humiliated. Sexual violence is “preferred”, Inger Skjelsbaek suggests, because this type of violence “most clearly communicates masculinization and feminization”.13

Nevertheless, indications from cases such as the former Yugoslavia suggest that although sexual violence against men is prevalent in some cases (significantly, not in all cases), it may more frequently take forms such as sexual mutilation, castration, sexual humiliation, and forcing male prisoners to perform sexual acts upon each other or upon women, often female family members – rather than direct male to male rape. This is something that requires much further empirical investigation across cases and theoretical analysis. Is sexual violence against men less likely to be part of a deliberate military strategy? Is it harder to “sell” to soldiers? Or is it merely that the particular forms of sexual violence against men that are encouraged will be different from those against women?

Pascale Bos: Indeed, sexual violence is one more “tool” to be used in the denigration and ultimate subjugation of one’s enemy, regardless of whether that enemy is male or female. There are, however, certain cultural factors that do contribute to the far greater ratio of male on female than male on male rape. In some cases it may be that the taboo against homosexual acts prevents many men from violating other men as often as they do women. What this phenomenon revels is the fact that while wartime rape is not primarily of a sexual nature, it is still sexual and it is still connected to the perpetrator’s “everyday” concept of sexuality and sexual identity.

Generally, I hope than an examination of men as victims of sexual violence will enable us to investigate more openly both perpetration and victimization of both sexes during wartime. By focusing exclusively on the victimization of women, we seem to imply that women are always victims and only victims and not participants in war. This in turn exonerates women of any responsibility, yet it also denies them any agency they might have had.

Regina Mühlhäuser: During the German war in the Soviet Union, for instance, we will find hundreds of cases of coerced undressing of men and the inspection of their penises in order to establish if they were circumcized (and could thus be classified as a “Jew”). Some sources indicate that, occasionally, these acts were accompanied by comments on the size of men’s genitals. Furthermore, some soldiers touched their victims with sticks or guns. If we do not limit our research on sexual violence to acts of rape, but also document and analyse these forms of violence – violent undressing, enforced nakedness, sexual torture or sexual blackmail – we will understand much better the meaning of sexual violence as part of combat as well as the gendering of war.

Debra Bergoffen: When men sexually violate women they never risk their masculinity. When a man sexually violates another man, however, he implicitly threatens himself; for at some level he becomes aware of the fact that he too could be raped, lose his masculinity, become a woman. The relative scarcity of this crime may be due to the fact that even enemy men do not want to destabilize each other’s masculinity in this radical way.

Gender codes hide the fact that vulnerability is a shared human condition. All violence is exploitation of our human situation – our necessary intersubjectivity, described by Simone de Beauvoir as our “shared interdependence” and by Hannah Arendt as our “necessary plurality”. This intersubjectivity, interdependence and plurality, which constitutes us as human, is lived as our bodied vulnerability. The ICTY judgment, when it spoke of a woman’s sexual integrity, opened the way for us to think of embodied integrity as the other side of our lived vulnerability. Furthermore, in speaking specifically of women’s sexual integrity, it alerts us to the ways in which we live our vulnerabilities differently and to the ways in which these differences must be addressed. Gender codes matter. So long as they mystify men as invulnerable, and burden women with the mark of vulnerability, we will fall short of creating a world where, in recognizing our shared vulnerability, we assume responsibility for recognizing each other’s integrity.

Gaby Zipfel: To refuse the the attribution of the roles “violable woman” and “violating man” also means involving the subjectivity and individuality of persons, and enquiring after motives. How do these individuals integrate the perpetration of sexual violence into their self-conception as gendered persons and military actors? Does it make a difference if the act is committed by an individual perpetrator or by a group?

Pascale Bos: In terms of the psychology of the offenders, we know too little about what causes individual men to move from generalized violence into sexual violence, or to look at it a different way, what makes them cross the line from “normal” consensual into “deviant” forced sexual behavior. One of the studies that I do find useful as a springboard for such an investigation is “A Multifactorial Model of Wartime Rape” by Henry, Ward, and Hirschberg, which analyzes the individual, sociocultural, and situational context variables that seem to play a role in facilitating wartime sexual violence.14

Much of what we think we know is based on inference and speculation; it is extremely rare that researchers get to interview (former) perpetrators about their acts. If the latter happens at all, it is usually in the context of a trial, where it is likely that the perpetrators’ explanations are laced with justification, rather than offering useful insights into actual motivations.

Regina Mühlhäuser: Testimonies of former Wehrmacht soldiers demonstrate that many men thought they possessed discretionary power over “the women of the enemy”. They interpreted the military regulations in their interests and created scope for themselves to pursue their sexual fantasies. Various eyewitness accounts document that the searching of houses could be accompanied by sexual violence against the female – and sometimes male – inhabitants: they were coerced into undressing, forced to walk or bend naked in front of a group of soldiers, they were examined voyeuristically, sometimes even photographed and touched their sexual organs. Different military regulations did indeed instruct the soldiers to bodysearch the inhabitants for firearms or secret messages. However, these instructions did not include the touching of their breasts, the squeezing of their nipples or other sexual violations. Stories like this thus reveal that the men interpreted the regulations individually, according to their own interests.15 In a situation in which the soldiers probably felt bored, afraid and depressed, acts of verbal, voyeuristic and physical sexual assault offered them a opportunity to affirm their own superiority and to ease their emotional stress. The example shows that such acts were not only legitimized by the institutionalized order “from above”, but far more often produced in everyday social practice.

The sudden brutality of many of these acts of sexual violence and the escalation of group situations suggest that this could result in situations, in which the men acted in a way that was probably unimaginable (or at least unacknowledged) to most of the individuals before. We thus need to ask how the individual actors treated these experiences afterwards.

In her considerations of the intrinsic linkage of National Socialist crimes and sexuality, Elisabeth D. Heineman asked if sexual satisfaction eased the process of killing during the “Final Solution”, “either by helping them [the perpetrators] to dehumanize their victims or by offering opportunities to release tension that might otherwise have interfered with killing operations”.16 From the historian’s point of view, I am not able to answer this question, but various sources do indeed raise the question of a connection between sexual lust and a lust to kill. Heineman’s theory of the dehumanization of the victims, however, has to be differentiated. The victims of these acts might rightly have felt dehumanized and still feel that way until today. Indeed, it was one of the strategies of the perpetrators to impose feelings of “unhumanness” upon their victims. Nevertheless, if we want to understand the perpetrators and the phenomenon of sexual violence as such, we have to confront ourselves with the fact that this form of sexual lust – to take possession, to conquer, to capture, to overpower and to destroy – is not unhuman and not out of the ordinary.

Louise du Toit: One tendency that I have picked up from my reading on gangster violence, for instance, is that there was a clear desire on the side of the perpetrators to “perform” their masculinity in front of “an audience”. In such a scenario, where the affirmation and enactment of an idealized masculinity was the whole point of the rape, the body of the victim became a prop and the place became a theatre for which the purpose was to demonstrate the enormous power of the particular penis. The suffering and humiliation of the victim was magnified because it presumably testified to the controlling power of the penis.

Many rapists also testify to feeling exhilarated, energized and affirmed afterwards. Within this logic, presumably, the rapist grows stronger, bigger and more masculine the more he succeeds in reducing a live woman or girl to a passive, infantile, pleading being and sexual spectacle. Rape has often been cited as a specific form of initiation of the young, new gang member. By reducing female sexuality to spectacle that can be controlled through violence and fear, the young boy finally and decisively breaks with his initial dependence on his mother and symbolically erases his origin within her body. From now on, through his risking of death and through his performative destruction of female sexuality, he will be counted as a man. In this case, and it would be interesting to see how often also within the context of war, rape plays the role of shifting the young man’s relation to female sexuality from one of fear, awe and dependence, to one of control and appropriation.

Miranda Alison: This is an area which I believe requires much greater investigation than it has so far received. Part of the problem here may be the difficulties entailed in real inter-disciplinary approaches to research, as well as problems accessing perpetrators of wartime sexual violence. In my discipline, politics, the focus is more likely to be on sexual violence as a weapon of war or a military strategy, rather than on what makes individuals prepared to commit sexual violence in a context of war. Probably there is research in psychology that we tend not to have engaged with that does examine the motives of perpetrators; however the problem, it seems to me, is that too narrow a focus on perpetrators may curtail a deeper understanding of the structures within which perpetrators are operating – which does not mean I am proposing a stark structure-agency dichotomy, of course. When we look at the scale of wartime sexual violence in terms of numbers of perpetrators (as opposed to numbers of victims) there are some cases where this is so widespread (Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, DRC, Darfur etc.) that it is quite obvious that this cannot be explained with reference to “deviant individuals” or to simplistic notions of war loosening moral restraints. However even within the most widespread and virulent manifestations of wartime sexual violence, and where there seems to be a military strategy of sexual violence or at least no sanctions against it, there are always cases to be found of men who refuse to commit sexual violence, even under threat of severe physical sanction. How do we account for this in a way that also explains why so many do not refuse?

Furthermore, it is no coincidence that so many acts of wartime sexual violence are committed by groups of perpetrators – gang rapes and so on – rather than lone individuals. It has been shown that gang rape performs a bonding function for groups of men, cementing a sense of loyalty; those who might not rape individually do rape collectively, in a group assertion of masculinity. Joshua Goldstein suggests that raping as part of a group “may serve to relieve individual men of responsibility”.17 However I would also propose that part of the reason gang-rape promotes group cohesion may be that it bonds men together in complicity, in a shared awareness of responsibility, which makes loyalty to the group vital. This does not seem to be restricted to military/war contexts – the same applies to university fraternities and also to gangs, as Louise has already pointed out.

It seems clear that many men who have committed acts of wartime sexual violence were aware of the moral unacceptability of their actions. There is evidence that at least some of the soldier-rapists in the wars in the former Yugoslavia possessed a sense of guilt. Testimonies of internees and rape victim-survivors state that some Serbian soldiers in the rape camps took sedatives or stimulants to enable themselves, at least in the early days, to commit rape. Lisa S. Price reports that many others sought resolve or escape in alcohol.18 Similarly, in Rwanda the provision of alcohol to some of those committing the genocide was necessary.19 Tragically for their victims, self-doubt and uncertainty about their actions – even, Price suggests, about their very identity – produced distress which may in turn have led to the men being even more violent in an effort to reassert their hetero-masculinity, their nationalism, their loyalty.

Gaby Zipfel: A wartime society or an army in battely submits to different rules and norms of behaviour as those that apply in peacetime. In keeping with this perception, sexual violence is frequently seen as rampant in warfare while generally condemned in peacetime. However, it remains to be asked to what extent sexual violence in war and sexual violence in peacetime constitute different phenomena – in what ways do they affect each other? How can we describe the processes that evolve under the conditions that prevail before the outbreak of a war, during combat, and after the end of a war (with respect to power, violence, and identity)?

Louise du Toit: I feel this is one of the crucial areas of investigation for the theme at hand. It is important to note in the African context that the liberation struggles were generally couched in nationalist and masculinist terms. Not only is this very clear in the liberation rhetoric, but also in places such as African philosophical texts (dating back to the 1940s) and in African literature, which displayed a very strong masculinist bias right throughout the twentieth century. This is not surprising, against the backdrop of colonial systems which enhanced indigenous tendencies towards patriarchy (and repressed counter forces such as female chiefs, queens, female deities and the like) and articulated these with Victorian and other nineteenth century Christian-European patriarchal worldviews. This historical situation led to a masculinist-nationalist liberation discourse in which women were often conflated with timeless (static) tradition, the home, sexuality, and thus with a sphere outside of politics.

In South Africa in particular, women were either left out of the struggle completely (maintaining the soldiers’ homes), or they had to “become men” if they wanted to participate. For many women, this latter option meant that they had to make their sexual bodies available to the soldiers, literally serve the liberation struggle sexually. History, liberation, war and politics (motion, mobility, action) were defined in monosexual, masculinist terms. If one views the colonial state as one of semi-permanent occupation, then most African states have been experiencing exceptional circumstances for the past 300-500 years, and although one cannot say that they were at war for so long, clearly the stress placed on the indigenous communities translated into hyper-strained gender relations. So much has become clear when African women became educated and started to find their own voice, both politically and intellectually, only during the past 20 to 30 years. This strain has also shown in the pervasive presence of sexual violence and rape generally in the African conflicts. Not only “enemy” women are raped – often sexual violence against the “friendly” women is tolerated on a large scale under the rationalizations: women’s “contribution” to the liberation effort; greater entitlements of freedom fighters; the “punishment” of women who are too independent or who simply assert their sexual autonomy; and (revolutionary) cultural claims to the effect that true African men do not allow their sexuality to be controlled – not by women, not by Christian morality, and not by western law.

Not even our much-celebrated TRC process and our very progressive new constitution, together with an official ANC policy of gender equality and quotas for women in parliament, could make a dent in the war-levels of sexual violence in our new democracy. One must also not lose from view the horrendous statistic that currently about 40 per cent of rape victims are under the age of 12, in other words young children. On 30 June 2008, the Minister of Safety and Security of SA announced that child murders have gone up with 22 per cent during the past year – now, a South African child is murdered every 6 hours, and these murders are usually accompanied by sexual violence. I don’t know how to make sense of this phenomenon. What is war? What is peace?

Regina Mühlhäuser: In her autobiography Seed of Sarah, the Hungarian Jew Judith Magyar Isaacson described that she constantly feared sexual violence. One day, a commandant of the camp Lichtenau asked her to follow him: “The Kommandant strode ahead in his stiff breeches and pounding boots. Instinctively, I followed, my head cast down, my eyes on the graveled road. I had a flash of recognition, as if I had followed a past master in such dumb obedience. Do women inherit memories of rape? I recalled the myth of the Sabine women and the tale of Hunor and Magor and their abducted mates, the legendary ancestors of Huns and Magyars. ‘My plight is not unique’, I told myself, ‘I am caught in an ancient rite of sex and war.'”20

Isaacsons knowledge of the antic myth of the Sabine women and the Hungarian tale of Hugor und Manor reflects the normalcy and pervasiveness of sexual violence in wartime. In general, women were and often still are socialized with the notion to await and endure acts of sexual violence.

Narratives of German soldiers also inform us about expectations of sexual excesses even before the war had started. Autobiographies of German soldiers, especially by those who were drafted as 15 or 16 year olds at the end of the war, openly reflect their expectation that the war would be accompanied by sexual experiences and adventures.

Such dominant (female and male) ideas and expectations about wartime sexuality structure the experiences and narratives during the war. Furthermore, these expectations, as well as the actual wartime experiences, shape postwar societies.

Miranda Alison: Anthropologists tend to claim that war is a part of every human society, and therefore that it is not an exception or a break from “normal” life. They may have a point, but my concern with this approach is that it can potentially lead to a fatalistic attitude towards attempts to try and end wars (or to resolve socio-political conflicts before they lead to wars). Although much of the violence and other impacts or events of wars are in many ways intensified continuations of violence and events that occur in non-war contexts, at the same time wars do involve many people participating in acts they would not in “peacetime”. They also involve some people going to heroic lengths to avoid or refuse participating in such acts. I accept the point of conflict resolution theorists who argue that conflicts between people (and, by extension, between groups of people) are inevitable and are a normal part of human society. However this is not the same thing as saying armed, violent conflict (war) is equally inevitable or “normal”.

When it comes specifically to sexual violence in war, there is further disagreement: is this an intensification of sexual violence that occurs in “peacetime’ or is it a separate phenomenon? My answer would be that it is not quite either of these things. There are connections, but at the same time there are some manifestations, patterns and rationales for wartime sexual violence which do not apply to non-war contexts. It has been claimed that, “In wars men only continue to do what they did before but in a more mindless and indiscriminate way”21 and that “rape […] happens during war for the same reasons it happens during peace. It is a phenomenon rooted in inequality, discrimination, male domination and aggression, misogyny and the entrenched socialization of sexual myths.”22 Brownmiller goes further, maintaining that, “rape in war is a familiar act with a familiar excuse. […] War provides men with the perfect psychological backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women.”23 Brownmiller’s early work on rape was highly significant in demonstrating that we cannot seriously explain sexual violence in terms of individual isolated acts by deviants, but must address, in Segal’s words, “the wider social context of the power of men”.24 However, Brownmiller’s (and similar) arguments do not explain why particular men rape while others do not, beyond the general idea that the power of all men over all women is secured by the actions of the few. There are also, of course, the problems we discussed earlier of specific categories of women being targeted, men being subject to sexual violence, and women as perpetrators. Such generalizations are also insupportable given that the extent of rape in different societies and at different times varies significantly, as it does in different wars.

Although it is generally accepted that rape is influenced by socio-cultural conditions, meaning that patterns of rape vary, within anthropological literature there is a high degree of controversy over whether or not any societies can truly be described as “rape-free’ (generally smaller tribal and pre-industrial societies), though there is more consensus that some societies are “rape-prone’ (including all modern western societies). While it is hard to disagree that male-female power imbalances and gender structures are fundamental to the incidence of rape and other sexual violence, and that there are similarities between wartime and “peacetime” sexual violence, explanations for the widespread, often systematic, orchestrated and targeted occurrences of wartime sexual violence need to go beyond this.

Louise du Toit: This kind of phenomenon, where the symptoms of war as it were continue into the transitional or post-war phase of the country, tends to blur and question the supposedly clear-cut distinction between war and peace. As a feminist, I would argue that women’s reality differs from men’s, and that “war’ and “peace’ are usually defined in a masculine world and through men’s lenses. Women’s lived reality, of something like sexual violation, for example, may trace a very different historical trajectory from this official masculine one.

Based on papers presented at the workshop “The pervasiveness of sexual violence in wars”, organized by the Arbeitskreis Krieg und Geschlecht (Working group war and gender) at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research on 11-13 July 2008, led by Birthe Kundrus, Regina Mühlhäuser and Gaby Zipfel.


  1. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain. The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford 1985.
  2. UN Resolution 1820, passed on 19.06.2008, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/sc9364.doc.htm.
  3. Prosecutor v. Dragoljub Kunarac et al., Judgment, Case No. IT-96-23-T und T-96-23/I-T, 22. Februar 2001, http://www.un.org/icty/foca/trialc2/judgement/index.htm.
  4. Martin Shaw, War and Genocide, Cambridge 2003.
  5. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/
  6. Lisa S. Price, "Finding the Man in the Soldier-Rapist. Some Reflections on Comprehension and Accountability", in: Women's Studies International Forum, 24 (2001), 2, S. 222.
  7. Ruth Seifert, "Krieg und Vergewaltigung. Ansätze zu einer Analyse", in: Alexandra Stiglmayer (Hrsg.), Massenvergewaltigung. Krieg gegen die Frauen, Frankfurt am Main 1993, 87-113, 101.
  8. Lynda E. Boose, "Crossing the River Drina: Bosnian Rape Camps, Turkish Impalement and Serb Cultural Memory", in: Signs. Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28 (2002) 1, 76.
  9. Ulrich Bröckling, Disziplin. Soziologie und Geschichte militärischer Gehorsamsproduktion, München 1997.
  10. Jan Phillip Reemtsma, "Die Wiederkehr der Hobbesschen Frage. Dialektik der Zivilisation", in: Mittelweg 36 3 (1995), 6, 47-56.
  11. Elisabeth Jean Wood, "Sexuelle Gewalt im Krieg. Zum Verständnis unterschiedlicher Formen", in: Insa Eschebach und Regina Mühlhäuser (eds.), Krieg und Geschlecht. Sexuelle Gewalt im Krieg und Sex-Zwangsarbeit in NS-Konzentrationslagern, Berlin 2008, 75-102.
  12. Birgit Beck, Wehrmacht und sexuelle Gewalt. Sexualverbrechen vor deutschen Militärgerichten 1939-1945, Paderborn 2004, 72, 335. David Raub Snyder, Sex Crimes under the Wehrmacht, Lincoln 2007, xi f.; 135 ff.
  13. Inger Skjelsbaek, "Sexual Violence and War: Mapping Out a Complex Relationship", in: European Journal of International Relations 7 (2001), 2, 227.
  14. Nicola Henry, Tony Ward und Matt Hirshberg, "A multifactorial Model of Wartime Rape", in: Aggression and Violent Behavior 9 (2004), 5; 535-562.
  15. Alf Lüdtke, Eigen-Sinn. Fabrikalltag, Arbeitererfahrungen und Politik vom Kaiserreich bis in den Faschismus, Hamburg 1993.
  16. Elizabeth D. Heineman, "Sexuality and Nazism: The Doubly Unspeakable?", in: Journal of the History of Sexuality 11 (2002), 1/2, 22-66, 55.
  17. Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender. How Gender Shapes the War systems and Vice Versa, Cambdrige 2001, 357-360.
  18. Lisa S. Price, op. cit.
  19. Adam Jones, "Gender and Genocide in Rwanda", in: Journal of Genocide Research, 4 (2002), 1.
  20. Judith Magyar Isaacson, Seed of Sarah. Memoirs of a Survivor, Urbana und Chicago 1990, 90.
  21. Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic, "War and Violence against Women", in: J. Turpin and L. A. Lorentzen (Hrsg.), The Gendered New World Order: Militarism, Development, and the Environment, New York 1996, 196.
  22. Tamara L. Tompkins, "Prosecuting Rape as a War Crime: Speaking the Unspeakable", in: Notre Dame Law Review 70 (1995), 4, 850f.
  23. Susan Brownmiller, Gegen unseren Willen. Vergewaltigung und Männerherrschaft, Frankfurt am Main 1980, 38.
  24. Lynne Segal, Slow Motion. Changing Masculinities, Changing Men, London 1990, 237.



© Miranda Alison, Debra Bergoffen, Pascale Bos, Regina Mühlhäuser, Louise du Toit, Gaby Zipfel / Mittelweg 36 Eurozine