The Perpetration of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: Sources of Explanation

25 – 26 June 2010, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany

Sexual violence was (and often still is) considered to be an inevitable by-product of armed conflict that is situated beside or beyond the »real« acts of war and thus deemed not worthy of special attention. It was not until the early 1990s that this attitude began to change. Feminist perceptions, NGO politics, and media coverage resulted in increased attention to this form of violence within the international community, and—as one consequence—to the codification of sexual violence as a crime in international law.

As acts of sexual violence in recent theaters of armed conflict were documented and historical war situations were reassessed from a new angle, it became evident that the term sexual violence can refer to a variety of different crimes, including enforced nakedness, sexual humiliation, sexual torture, rape (with objects, with the penis, or with other bodily parts), gang rape, enforced prostitution, sexual enslavement, and forced pregnancy. Furthermore, recent empirical research has suggested that the frequency/intensity of sexual violence varies across conflicts and across groups in a given conflict—an observation that refutes the latent hypothesis that this form of violence constitutes a quasi-natural collateral damage, which needs to be controlled but cannot be stopped (a hypothesis that ironically corresponds to the idea that sexual violence is the embodiment of an ahistorical system of patriarchal domination).

During our last workshop, »The Pervasiveness of Sexual Violence in War« in July 2008, we emphasized the need to analyze the pervasiveness of sexual violence during armed conflicts in general and to take a closer look at variations in form and frequency at the same time. Our initial question thus focused on the factors that lead to variations, for instance to the occurrence or absence of sexual violence. In order to obtain a clearer picture, we began by discussing four issues: 1) the role of the military leadership and the military as an organization; 2) the motives of individual actors; 3) the interconnection between pre-conflict, conflict, and post-conflict attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and violence; and 4) current political and judicial controversies in dealing with sexual violence. During our two-day discussion, we realized that we also need to turn towards understanding and explaining the phenomenon of sexual violence as an embodied experience. One of the main questions that emerged at the end of the 2008 workshop was this: what distinguishes acts of sexual violence from other forms of violence, for instance, torture? We would like to suggest that the exchange begun in 2008 be continued by examining specific case studies more closely and by selecting key sources for all participants to read and discuss.

I. Approaching Source Material

During the workshop in 2008, we asserted that one of the main problems we face is the lack of sufficient data, especially from armed groups that perpetrate sexual violence, from both the level of military leadership as well as from individuals who may have engaged in (or witnessed) this form of violence. Still, when one begins to take a closer look, a variety of possible source materials can be uncovered:

  • oral and written testimony by soldiers as well as civilians, by perpetrators as well as victims, and by witnesses of sexual violence
  • military documents on the regulation of troops, for instance about prevention of atrocities against the enemy population or containment of sexually-transmitted disease
  • judicial material generated during or after an armed conflict
  • sources of perception, for instance cultural productions like literature, film, etc.

In general, we must consider whether researchers need to move beyond conventional approaches in order to tap the full potential of existing sources. Since the use and interpretation of sources varies considerably in different academic disciplines and political fields, a multidisciplinary perspective may be one way of broadening the scope of research methodology. At this workshop, we would therefore like to utilize the entire spectrum of participants’ perspectives.

  • What are the questions that each one of us asks of the sources?
  • In what ways do these questions differ, in keeping with specific disciplinary or methodological approaches?

Inevitably, all sources are shaped by contemporary ideas of heterosexual violence as well as by gendered conceptions of honor, guilt, and shame. Often, there are few reliable details and opportunities to confirm a source’s narrative may also be lacking. Especially when it comes to testimonies, we have to take into account that eye witnesses deliberately conceal details (for instance, because they consider them to be too intimate) or exaggerate the degree of violence (for instance, because they feel the need to stress that the victims were at the mercy of the perpetrators and it impossible for them to resist). In addition, some stories are most definitely based on rumors that are passed on in order to scandalize the perpetrators’ behavior, to avert suspicion, to distract oneself with »sex-and-crime stories«, etc. Consequently, specific difficulties often emerge during attempts to interpret sources on sexual violence. How can we deal with these difficulties? What do the sources tell us, and what are their limitations? How can we represent the ambivalence of these sources?

II. Defining Sexual Violence

In-depth analysis of the sources can provide insights into the meanings and functions of sexual violence in a specific context and also pose various questions about the phenomenon itself.

  • What do the sources actually describe?
  • How do we grasp sexual violence as an embodied experience, i.e. in terms of the history of the body?

At the 2008 workshop, some participants argued that torture should generally be seen as sexual violence, because of the intimacy between perpetrator and victim, which always constitutes an attack upon the bodily and sexual integrity of the victim. Indeed, we need to ask what distinguishes acts of sexual violence from other forms of violence.

  • In what ways is sexual violence gendered?
  • What is sexual about sexual violence?

In this context, we need to spell out further the questions about gender constructions that we have already touched upon and to achieve a more precise understanding of the different experiences of agency and vulnerability.

  • How do we describe the gendered ideas and norms connected to female/male victims and male/female perpetrators?
  • How are the processes of Othering configured in different conflict situations?

III. Re-interpreting Gendered Scripts

With respect to the theaters of conflict that we discussed during our last workshop, we observe that sexual violence was perpetrated on different levels: during or after combat (the plundering of female bodies); as individual or collective acts aimed at intimidating and terrorizing the enemy; as individual or gang rapes in the course of an escalation of violence, as acts of opportunity, etc. In general, male bonding generated by rape as a collective act during conflict seems to contribute to the process in which soldiers affirm their own strength and their willingness to perpetrate violence. One question we raised during our last discussion was to what extent these different situations reflect the perspectives of perpetrators, which correspond directly to the military’s expectation that soldiers kill and risk being killed.

  • Is the perpetration of sexual violence a rite of passage that consolidates the willingness to kill?
  • Should the extension of acts of plundering to the female body (which is often followed by the murder of the victim) be seen in relation to the idea that a warrior acquires the right to the female body as booty, in return for risking being killed?

The perpetration of sexual violence as an act of opportunity seems to be the most obvious link between sexual violence in wartime and the sexual identity of a soldier in civilian life. In this context, we need to analyze which genealogies between pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict periods pervade societal discourse about the propensity to sexual violence – a genealogy which is situated between the poles »war as a metaphor in societal conflicts« and »war as an exceptional state of society« (the latter with clearly defined front lines and clearly fixed regulations). The woman’s body, or more precise: the body perceived as female, serves as a stage and a “stage prop”, on and through which male heterosexual domination is produced and demonstrated. It serves as battlefield and field of communication between enemies and symbolizes the conquered territory. Threats, intimidation, terrorization, and extermination merge with sexual stimulation and satisfaction.

  • Which sexual scripts form the foundation of a specific civil society, and to what extent do war-like conflicts spell out or reformulate these scripts? 

Furthermore, it is important to analyze the impact that the reformulation of such scripts has on a conflict or post-conflict society.

  • Under which circumstances and in what way is a post-war society willing to deal with the sexual scripts that are predominant during war?
  • And which consequences does such a debate (or the lack thereof) have on the development of a sense of what is perceived as just and unjust?
  • How do institutions like the military, politics, the judicial system, but also the family and religious institutions deal with this issue?

IV. Depicting the Intertwinedness of the Military and Society

During the 2008 workshop, we realized that it is crucial to talk about conflict zones (instead of war), because this creates an opportunity to include situations of mass armed conflict or warlike intergroup violence, regardless of whether or not there has been a formal declaration of war and whether or not state actors play a leading role in the conflict. During our discussion, we asked how the norms of armed groups that are subject to military policies on sexual violence are shaped. We concentrated not so much on the form of war, but instead questioned the cultural norms of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnic identity (i.e. norms of society but also of the individual men in charge), that lead a military group to ban or facilitate sexual violence. In military training as well as in conflict situations, certain norms seem to be (re)enforced while others are downplayed. Furthermore, situative factors in concrete combat situations play an important role.

In a next step, we now have to examine how these norms are enforced in different theaters of conflict and in connection with different forms of war or conflict. We can then determine more accurately:

  • Which factors facilitate, constrain, or hinder the perpetration of sexual violence?
  • Does it make sense to refer to rape-prone societies, and if so, which factors would lead to a definition of the term?
  • What is the influence of specific goals of war, the form of a specific conflict, and the degree of mobilization of the population?


Friday, 25 June 2010

Welcome, Introduction & Objectives:
Regina Mühlhäuser & Gaby Zipfel

»Found on a German Soldier«. Four Photographs of a Rape
Case Study by Fabrice Virgili
Moderation: Gaby Zipfel

Sexual Desire, Antisemitic Hatred and Male Control. Testimonies about Acts of Sexual Violence at the Eastern Front during WWII
Case Study by Regina Mühlhäuser
Moderation: Debra Bergoffen

Rape Narratives before the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and beyond the Legal Frame
Case Study by Gabriela Mischkowski
Moderation: Elissa Mailänder-Koslov

Saturday, 26 June

ICTY Kunarac Case. The Judgment of February 22, 2001
Case Study by Debra Bergoffen
Moderation: Pascale Bos

Testimonies from the Winter Soldiers Investigation, Vietnam Veterans
Case Study by Joanna Bourke
Moderation: Regina Mühlhäuser

Final Discussion: Future Perspectives for Comparative Research
Proposal to establish a long-term Research-Cooperation


  • Debra Bergoffen, Professor of Philosophy, George Mason University, Washington D.C., USA
  • Pascale Bos, Associate Professor, Center for European Studies, University of Texas, USA
  • Joanna Bourke, Professor of History, Birkbeck College, University of London, UK
  • Raphaëlle Branche, Lecturer, Department of History, University of Paris-1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne), France
  • Kirsten Campbell, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
  • Juliane Deppe, Student Assistant, Working Group »War & Gender«, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany
  • Lisa Gabriel, Student, Military Studies, University of Potsdam, Germany
  • Júlia Garraio, Researcher, Center for Social Research, University of Coimbra, Portugal
  • Elissa Mailänder-Koslov, Researcher, Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen, Germany
  • Gabriela Mischkowski, Program Advisor for Gender Justice, Medica Mondiale, Germany
  • Regina Mühlhäuser, Researcher, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany
  • Amandine Regamey, Researcher CERCEC, University Paris-1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne), France
  • Fabrice Virgili, Researcher CNRS, University Paris-1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne), France
  • Anna von Gall, Program Director »Gender and Human Rights«, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Germany
  • Claudia Weber, Researcher, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany
  • Gaby Zipfel, Editor of the Magazine 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.