Last year, I was invited to participate in a couple of workshops on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). One was academic, with a specific focus on how we can know something about sexual violence in war and the methods used by researchers to come to know this violence. The other was more practitioner-oriented, and was attended by some of the key players of international policy-making on CRSV. While both were invigorating and inspiring events, what struck me from discussions in both is how far removed the study of wartime sexual violence has come from its feminist roots.
In recent decades, academic and policy interest on sexual violence in war has grown exponentially. Far from its origins on the margins of studies of war, sexual violence is now a central topic and efforts to understand its causes and consequences span the disciplines interested in armed conflict, political violence, international security, and humanitarian crises. However, as the issue has become mainstream, much of its early feminist-informed analyses have been lost to increasingly positivist socio-political and scientific approaches to understand this violence.
But much is lost in this maneuver. As I’ve written about elsewhere, the harmonized ‘rape as a weapon of war’ narrative that has been produced through the elevation of sexual violence to the international security agenda “has produced an unsustainable and ineffectual paradigm that is based ultimately on the fetishization of this violence.”
While early feminist analyses of rape in war contributed to this amalgamation of all forms of CRSV as a single, coherent phenomenon, recent corrective efforts by critical scholars to disaggregate and contextualize CRSV has resulted in a near abandonment of feminist frames for understanding this violence. While feminists have pointed out that rape in war, like rape in so-called times of ‘peace’, cannot be understood except through an analysis of patriarchal power disparities between the sexes, some have argued that because patriarchy is a constant structural feature of societies, it cannot be causal or independently explanatory for sexual violence.
But if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, as we have seen done in not only scholarship, but also policy and advocacy on sexual violence in armed conflict, we end up with the explanation that either men are animals who can’t control their insatiable sexual urges, for which war provides the convenient breakdown of social barriers to their animal impulses; or, that rape and sexual violence is genderless, equivalently perpetrated and experienced by members of both sexes, and thus understandable only as either an innate human quality or the result of a few ‘bad apples.’
The value of sexual violence must be seen through the lens of sexual politics. That is, the recognition that (the physical act of) sex and sexuality are deeply set within human social relations and comprehensible only in relation to “the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes” (Millet 1970, 23). Such a perspective invites us to critically interrogate the ways in which sexual violence is enacted within a system of sexual domination, which simultaneously inscribes meaning and power to violated/violating bodies and to the act itself. This meaning and power is not isolated to CRSV, but visible also in the typical link between cruelty and sexuality in our everyday ‘peacetime’ societies, as well.
That is because sexuality is a social construct borne out of patriarchal relations. As such, sexuality is made meaningful as a relation of dominance and submission, gendered through dichotomous symbolisms that associate dominance with the masculine and submission with the feminine. In this way, the gendered nature of sexual violence comes from its construction within a system of patriarchy, while the gendered effects are not limited to the biological sex of either the victim or perpetrator.
Ultimately, the study of sexual violence in armed conflict requires feminism in order to understand how power and sexuality are mutually constituted in ways that make sexual forms of violence particularly egregious and humiliating, reaping for the perpetrator personal, social, political, and/or economic dividends.
Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.