»Against Our Will« Forty Years After: Exploring the Field of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict

International Conference 2 – 4 July 2015, Yu Garden, Hamburg, Germany

Forty years ago, in 1975, Susan Brownmiller’s analysis of sexual violence – Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape – was first published. Her description of the historical pervasiveness and social ubiquity of sexual violence in war and peace shocked many, but also encouraged the women’s movement to systemically consider the phenomenon of sexual violence as a central element of women’s oppression.

The Vietnam War, and twenty years later, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda brought the pervasiveness and persistence of sexual violence in armed conflict in sharp focus. Women and men have made their experiences of sexual violence in armed conflict public. Political and social practitioners have engaged with this phenomenon; it has been the subject of artistic and literary works, and the object of criminal prosecutions. An interdisciplinary scholarly field is now established.

Yet despite this increase of public and academic awareness, there is little consensus about the pervasiveness of this violence, it’s variations and its different forms. There is disagreement about the relationship of pre-war, wartime, and postwar circumstances, or the cultural and social models of gender that facilitate the perpetration of sexual violence. Current debates, such as ›sexual violence as a weapon of war‹, may be counterproductive since they can reduce it to a strategically implemented form of excessive violence. They often ignore the complex framework in which this violence occurs, which impedes the analysis of its broader impact and meaning. Essential questions such as the practices of gendering/ ›doing gender‹ or the intertwined nature of violence and sexuality increasingly disappear from the public political discourse. Moreover, even though many insights on the phenomenon have been accumulated, the perpetration of sexual violence in armed conflicts still continues unabated.

We still face more questions than satisfying explanations. It is time to reflect on the state of the field: What do we know and not yet know about the practices of sexual violence in armed conflict? How can we better describe incidences, motivations and responses? What kind of questions do we need to ask, and what theoretical approaches, methods and forms of communication are appropriate to shed light on these blind spots?

This international and interdisciplinary conference explores how wartime sexual violence is understood in the field and identifies the gaps in existing knowledge, with the aim of moving beyond current impasses and understanding. To do this, we aim to collaboratively develop a framework that sketches out the complex and mutable factors involved. We will do so through a reflection upon and close reading of sources, with the aim of positioning the occurrence of sexual violence in armed conflicts in the broader historical, social, and cultural context of gendered social conditions, cultural imaginations, ideas and attitudes, political strategies and power relations.

This conference was kindly supported by the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture, the Gender of Justice Research Project at Goldsmiths College (European Research Council ERC-313626) and the Hamburg Institute for Social Research.