Cultures of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts

3–5 April 2014, Birkbeck College, London, UK

Our previous two workshops explored the act of sexual violence as a dynamic field in which different actors/agents are situated. The ›Constellations‹ workshops aimed at deepening our knowledge about the various constellations, circumstances, and conditions in which sexual violence occurs.

In these discussions, a set of ideas and problems around ›cultures‹ of sexual violence in conflict began to emerge. These ranged from ideas of military cultures or the colonial cultural frame, to questions about the conceptual usefulness (or otherwise) of the concept of ›rape culture‹. ›Culture‹ was helpful in describing many different phenomena, ranging from systems of meaning to particular ways of life. The concept drew attention not only to ideas about cultural belonging, but also to cultural difference, whether in relation to gender differences or communal or religious narratives. However, these usages raise the question of the meaning of the term ›culture‹ in this context. This in turn suggests the problem of how to think ›culture‹ comparatively, which becomes acute in our attempts to work across different societies and times. Similarly sharp in this context is the question of the relationship between cultural practices and social power.

To explore this issue more systematically, we would like to engage with the theoretical and empirical approach to cultures of sexual violence in armed conflicts. We ask you to consider how ›culture‹ shapes sexual violence in war and how, in turn, sexual violence forms/ creates ›cultures‹ of conflict.

Some key fields in which culture is defined, experienced, represented and regulated are:

  • military (including paramilitary groups with their whole array of militarized culture);
  • state (including repressive state apparatus, police, local officials, lawyers);
  • art, media and scientific knowledge production;
  • religion.

The workshop will focus on ›organisational cultures‹, namely, the ways in which these or other organisations and institutions ›handle‹ sexual violence.

I. The Cultures of Organizations

The idea that organizations and institutions regulate sexual violence in conflict now seems commonplace. Formal institutions clearly operate to ›order‹ and organize sexual violence in particular ways. How they do this, however, remains unclear. Moreover, we have little systematic sense of the diverse institutions and organizations that influence this field. To better understand these issues, we ask you to examine institutions and organizations that ›handle‹ sexual violence in armed conflict in your sources. What kinds of institutions are these? What kind of organizational culture around sexual violence do these institutions have? How does this organizational culture produce knowledge about sexuality in armed conflict?

Organizational cultures work in complex ways to ›handle‹ sexual violence. Institutions may seek to regulate sexual violence, or they may fail to intervene. What are the organizational practices that order sexual violence in conflict? How does the organization represent these practices, both internally and externally? Do these practices produce a division between the ›public‹ and the ›private‹?

At times, organizations will represent these practices as means-end rational ›control‹ of sexual violence. However, it is also clear that organizational cultures involve emotional and affective registers. What are the affective registers at work in the organizational culture? How do these shape the ordering of sexual violence?

Organizations are not homogenous entities. Rather, we see differentiated individual and group responses to organizational cultures. What are the kinds of differentiated responses to organizational cultures of sexual violence in conflict? We also know that organizational responses to sexual violence change over time. What are the processes of institutional resistance and reform? And how are changes of organizational cultures affected?

II. The Cultures of Sexual Violence

Whether through omission or commission, organizational cultures engage with sexual violence in conflict. Organizations and institutions act upon existing ideas and practices of ›sexuality‹ and ›violence‹. Equally importantly, their responses can also reshape sexual violence in conflict. This suggests that we need to further consider how these organizational cultures classify and produce sexual violence in war and peace.

The ways in which these organizational cultures handle sexual violence are complex processes that involve both practices and ideas of sexuality and violence. How does this organizational culture classify sexual violence? Given the well-known military policies regarding prostitution and STD control, what is the relationship between these ideas of sexual violence, and the broader social organization of sexuality? How do ideas of ›sexual‹ difference organize this organizational culture? How do these ideas draw on other fields of knowledge about sexuality, such as art, media, science?

When and how organizations intervene in this field also depends on certain classifications and contexts of violence. How does this organizational culture classify violence? What is violence in a specific organization context? And why is sexual violence in conflict seen (or not seen), as something the organization needs to engage with? What understandings of warfare are assumed in the organizational culture? And how do circumstances of combat and occupation shape organizational cultures of sexual violence? What is the relationship between this organizational culture and wider cultures of violence? How is this expressed in artistic, media, scientific, or religious practice?

Power, violence, and sexuality are often intertwined in ambivalent ways in these cultures of sexual violence. The attempt to control sexuality, as well the libidinal economy of sexual practices, is often at stake in such cultures. How, then, are such ambivalences acted out in the organizational culture? And how do they resolve these ambivalences?

III. Methodologies

Our study of organizational cultures of sexual violence in conflict raises a number of important methodological issues. These organizations may be living or may no longer exist; they may contain homogeneous or multiple cultures; they may be tied a single nation-state or dispersed across many.  What then is the basis of our claims about organizational cultures of sexual violence? What can we discover about these cultures by using empirical material and interpreting sources? Is empirical material the only way to approach these questions? What is necessary to make the empirical material speak or speakable? How is it possible to grasp gender-constructions, resentments, and prejudices – to grasp both the functional and affective dimensions of institutions?

Different disciplines have evolved specific ways of studying organizations, which may or may not be adequate for the purposes of studying cultures of sexual violence.  How adequate are these disciplinary approaches? What other approaches might we use? What is the place of empirical research (social, anthropological, ethnographic)? What is the place of interpretative approaches, such as thick description or hermeneutic interpretation?


Thursday, 3 April

Opening Public Event
Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict. Film, Testimony, and the Vietnam War

Joanna Bourke in conversation with Kendrick Oliver (University of Southampton). With an introduction by Kirsten Campbell.

Friday, 4 April

Welcome: Joanna Bourke & Kirsten Campbell

Opening Remarks: Regina Mühlhäuser & Gaby Zipfel

Introductory Round

Section I: Gendered Agency / Decision-Making / Regulations

Input: Atreyee Sen, Slaps, Beatings, Laughter, Adda, Puppet Shows: Naxal Women Prisoners in Calcutta and the Art of Happiness in Captivity

Input: Louise du Toit, Cultures of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts: Considering the Case of Koevoet in Namibia

Input: Kirsten Campbell, The International Legal Cultures of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict

Moderation: Júlia Garraio
Concluding Remarks after the Discussion: Joanna Bourke

Section II: Cultural Scripts / Gendered Vulnerability

Input: Yuki Tanaka, A critique of Prime Minister Abe’s Policy on the »Comfort Women« Issue and Japan’s Social Formation of Hegemonic Masculinity

Input: Debra Bergoffen, A flight from Vulnerability. US Military Culture in general and US Macho Sports Culture through the Specifics of the Steubenville Rape Case

Input: Regina Mühlhäuser, Overlapping/Conflicting Cultural Scripts in Military and Civil Life: Two Examples of Military Men who advised their Daughters before the Young Women joined the Service

Input: Gaby Zipfel, »Authorized Transgressions« and their Impacts on Women in Wartime

Moderation: Dubravka Zarkov
Concluding Remarks after the Discussion: Kirsten Campbell

Saturday, 5 April

Section III: Interpretation / Representation

Input: Elissa Mailänder, The Wehrmacht’s Culture of Sexual Violence and Rape. The Interpretation of a Soldier’s Photograph

Input: Julia Garraio, Constructing and Deconstructing a Culture of Rape: An Example from the German Literature

Input: Pascale Bos, A Monument to Rape. Sexual Violence in National Memorial Cultures

Moderation: Lisa Gabriel
Concluding Remarks after the Discussion: Debra Bergoffen

Final Discussion


  • Debra Bergoffen, Emerita Professor of Philosophy, George Mason University, Washington, D.C., USA
  • Pascale Bos, Associate Professor, Center for European Studies, University of Texas at Austin, USA
  • Joanna Bourke, Professor of History, Birkbeck College, University of London, UK
  • Kirsten Campbell, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Goldsmith College, University of London, UK
  • Louise du Toit, Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
  • Lisa Gabriel, Assistant Working Group »War & Gender«, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany
  • Júlia Garraio, Researcher, Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal
  • Susann Lewerenz, Assistant Working Group »War & Gender«, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany
  • Elissa Mailänder, Associate Professor, Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po Paris, France
  • Regina Mühlhäuser, Researcher, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Hamburg, Germany
  • Atreyee Sen, Researcher, Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts, University of Manchester, UK
  • Toshiyuki Tanaka, Professor of History, Hiroshima University, Japan
  • Dubravka Zarkov, Associate Professor, International Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands
  • Gaby Zipfel, Researcher, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany

This workshop was kindly supported by the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Birkbeck College and Goldsmiths College (both University of London) and the University of Warwick.