The Pervasiveness of Sexual Violence in Wartime

11 – 12 July 2008, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany

Sexual violence is a frequent phenomenon in warfare. It can take many forms, such as coerced undressing, sexual torture, rape, mass rape, sexual enslavement, and enforced pregnancy. Wartime sexual violence is perpetrated by multiple perpetrators, in various circumstances, and for different reasons. People who become targets of wartime sexual violence are of every age, class, and gender; they may be civilians or members of a military group, and they may belong to the enemy side or to the same collective as the perpetrators.

During the past twenty years, feminist activists, scholars from a wide range of disciplines, and experts in international law have documented wartime rape and enhanced our understanding of its meanings, functions, and effects. The workshop aims to review these insights, definitions, and theories, especially those that have been discussed since our last conference on the issue, »Women's Bodies as Battlefields«, held at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research in June 2001. Furthermore, the workshop intends to evaluate empirical data from different theaters of war and, on this basis, draft new questions and perspectives for research.

I. The Military as an Organization

Empirical data from different theaters of war reveals that the frequency and the forms of sexual violence vary across conflicts and across groups in a given conflict. In some conflicts, sexual violence is widespread, yet in other conflicts it is a rather rare occurrence. In some conflicts, sexual violence increases over time; in others, it declines. To examine the pervasiveness of sexual violence in war thus entails taking a closer look at how this kind of violence is perpetrated in different conflict zones and comparing systematic observations. In some cases, sexual violence seems to represent an independent phenomenon; in others, it instead constitutes one step in the development of military violence (which today is often characterized by the triad »murder—plundering—rape«). In some cases, sexual violence seems to be part of a military strategy; in others, it is instead the result of an escalation of violence or the dissolution of limits to permissible conduct in a specific context.
In general, military leaders seem to integrate escalations of violence and the abandonment of norms that limit accepted forms of violence into their strategic calculations. Military commanders attempt to control acts of sexual violence to ensure that it will be combat-effective. Sometimes sexual violence is even promoted as an intentional weapon in war. At the same time, however, armed groups enforce effective sanctions against their combatants, in order to ensure military discipline; these sanctions can potentially lead to reduced levels of sexual violence. In order to elucidate the various modes of dealing with sexual violence in different conflict zones, we need to consider the complex relationships between strategic decisions and regulating sanctions enforced by the military leadership, the norms adhered to by combatants, and the dynamics that develop within combat units.

  • Do different forms of warfare promote specific forms of sexual violence?
  • And when does sexual violence become a military weapon that is purposefully employed?

Different sources indicate that, in some conflicts, the perpetration of sexual violence becomes a part of military strategy. If this is the case, we need to ask how such orders are communicated between commanders and subordinate soldiers.

  • Is this communication based on a latent agreement that men have in fact a virtually natural, justifiable access to bodies that are marked as female?
  • Does such an agreement exist regardless of the specificities of a particular cultural-normative context?
  • And how do we define the significance of this assumed latency in combat—when war-time violence and sexual violence merge?

In general, sexual violence is used as a term to describe crimes committed by men and directed 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 an absolute taboo. This taboo is also an expression of the impossibility of including sexual violence against men in the military's self-image as a masculine, heteronormative organization. We thus need to address the various meanings of male-to-male or female-to-male sexual violence.

  • Does closer examination of sexual violence against men change our general analysis of wartime sexual violence?

II. The Individual Actor

Even if we are prepared to assume the existence of cross-cultural agreement on what constitutes sexual violence, the motives of the perpetrators have not been satisfactorily addressed to date. For one thing, individuals differ with respect to their propensity for sexual violence and their willingness to engage in violence during peacetime. We thus need to take a closer look at the backgrounds of individual perpetrators--their age, origins, social relations etc.

  • How do they 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?

Moreover, in a combat situation, soldiers are confronted with the twofold pressure of having to kill others and potentially being killed themselves. This induces a specific state of emotional stress and crisis.

  • Is sexual violence a response to and a means of coping with the pressures that soldiers are exposed to during combat?

III. Exceptional Circumstances or War as a Normal State of Society?

A society at war or an army in battle forms new rules and understandings of behavior. In keeping with this perception, sexual violence is frequently seen as rampant in warfare while generally condemned in peacetime. Some feminist activists claim, however, that wartime rape is merely a continuation of everyday sexual violence in peacetime. During the workshop, the relationship between sexual violence in war and peace will be explored in greater detail.

  • To what extent do sexual violence a) in war and sexual violence b) in peacetime constitute different phenomena; in what ways do they affect each other?
  • How can we describe the processes that evolve under the different 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)?

IV. Reflecting on Divergent Approaches

While sharing the overall goal of condemning wartime sexual violence, different political and social groups (including those focusing on women's politics, human rights, international law, and on academic research on these issues) have pursued distinct interests, raised a variety of questions, and presented divergent analyses and solutions. The resulting debates have revealed that the issue of wartime sexual violence is highly charged with political as well as moral concerns. The workshop thus intends to highlight the need to account for different assumptions and presuppositions that shape positions in these discussions.

  • What concepts of gender and society are employed by participants in these debates?
  • What are our interests with respect to the issues, and what political and social demands can and should be formulated?


Friday, 11 July

Welcome / Introduction / Objectives

Session 1:
The Military as an Organization

Session 2:
The Individual Actor

Session 3:
Exceptional Circumstances or War as a Normal State of Society?

Saturday, 12. July

Session 4:
Reflecting on Divergent Approaches

Session 5:
The Status Quo of Public Awareness and the Example of the UN-Resolution from 19 June 2008 on Sexual Violence as War Crime

Final Discussion:
Questions, Topics, Perspectives


  • Christine Achinger, Assistant Professor, German Studies, University of Warwick, UK
  • Miranda Alison, Assistant Professor, Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, UK
  • Debra Bergoffen, Professor of Philosophy, George Mason University, Washington D.C., USA
  • Pascale Bos, Associate Professor, German Studies, University of Texas at Austin, USA
  • Sonja Buckel, Assistant Professor, Department of Politics, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Germany
  • Anat Frumkin, Artist, Hamburg, Germany
  • Sabine Grenz, Researcher, Department of Gender Studies, University of Göteborg, Sweden
  • Birthe Kundrus, Researcher in the Research Unit »Theory and History of Violence«, Hamburg Institute of Social Research, Germany
  • Elissa Mailänder-Koslov, Researcher, Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Studies Essen, Germany
  • Gabriela Mischkowski, Advisor for Gender Justice, Medica Mondiale, Germany
  • Regina Mühlhäuser, contact person for the Working Group »War & Gender«, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany
  • Stefanie Schüler, Director of the Institute for the History of the German Jews, Hamburg, Germany
  • Ruth Seifert, Professor of Sociology, Fachhochschule Regensburg, Germany
  • Dr. Claudia Weber, Researcher in the Research Unit »Theory and History of Violence«, Hamburg Institute of Social Research, Germany
  • Louise du Toit, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Gaby Zipfel, Editor Mittelweg 36, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany

This workshop was kindly supported by the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture and the Hamburg Institute for Social Research.