Ten Reasons Not To Write Your Master’s Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War

Marsha Henry

A guest post, following on from some previous reflections on gender and teaching and the politics of pedagogy, from Marsha Henry. Marsha is Lecturer in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the LSE Gender Institute, where she teaches, amongst other things, a course on gender and militarism. Her most recent research is into sexual exploitation in peacekeeping missions and peacekeeper labour hierarchies, and she is also, with Paul Higate, author of Insecure Spaces: Peacekeeping, Power and Performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia (Zed, 2009). With Pablo, she recently co-edited a special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics on ‘Rethinking Masculinity and Practices of Violence’. This post is based on a presentation given in San Francisco at the International Studies Association in April 2013.


It’s the first day of Lent term and the students are nervously gathered in a small stuffy classroom.  When I walk in and head towards the front of the room, the group falls silent. I introduce myself and we start a round of introductions and I ask students to speak briefly about their interest in the course. The first student tells me, and the class, that she’s in IR (International Relations), and is keen to take the course because she’s interested in studying sexual violence in war.  Another student turns to her, incredulous because she too is interested in that exact subject, and that furthermore she has worked for 3 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has ‘seen a lot’. A few more students echo similar interests and I’m trying hard not to stereotype these students. But it’s difficult. A mythical figure is beginning to crystallise in my head and I can’t stop it. This figure is young, female and possibly middle-class, sometimes Scandinavian. She’s studying IR, Human Rights or Gender Studies. A few male students also indicate an interest. Some indicate interest in other topics, but there is a numbers problem from the outset. I feel uncomfortable as this is the third year that I’ve taught this course, each time allotting only one lecture week to the subject of sexual violence in war, and subsuming it under the larger heading of ‘gender, sexualised violence and work in militarised contexts’. Each year students have asked for more time to be devoted to the subject, for the lecture week to be moved up, and for their to be less focus on diversity in the armed forces. When students come to me during office hours to discuss the scope of their dissertations on the subject I fidget. After a few conversations with colleagues, I decide I need to start compiling a list – of compelling reasons why students should not write on the subject of sexual violence in war. But what would I do with this list? Can it be shared? And what of my responsibility not to teach on the subject?

10: Writing About ‘It’ Narrows The Political Focus

As a committed feminist, I’m all for drawing significant attention to the ways in which women experience conflict in distinctive ways. But the concentration of interest on sexual violence in wartime often leads to a neglect of the ways in which women experience violence (labelled as sexual or not) in peacetime. This noticeable singular focus on the topic also narrows the possibility of dislodging categories and subject positions. It is often assumed in class conversations, essays and subsequently dissertations that women are the victims and men are the perpetrators of this form of violence. This assumption appears in written work in a way that both masks the possibility of other positionings within the perpetrator-victim continuum, as well as the structurally embedded way in which sexualised violence occurs and is experienced by individuals and communities. This failure to explain the pervasiveness of sexualised violence against women tends to reinforce the binaries and provides a rather fixed aperture for analysing sexual violence in war and its consequences.

9: Researching The Topic Inspires Voyeurism

I’m squirming in my seat as one of the students smiles widely while she explains her interest in working on the topic of sexual violence as a weapon of war. She could be nervous explaining herself in front of her peers and her professor. She could be feeling awkward about the subject matter. She could be conforming to gendered expectations of women in the classroom where female students who express themselves confidently or through feminist rhetoric are categorised as aggressive. If feminist critique is pleasurable, how do we ‘do’ our analysis of sexual violence in wartime, paying attention to experience, trauma, and moral responsibility? There is a tendency, in making visible the ‘horror’ of it all, that students sensationalise the subject by focussing on the minutiae, the details and the thick descriptions. Honing in on the bodily experience of rape, for example, can remove rape in war from the wider social, cultural, economic and political context in which it always takes place. It can be an abstraction of the total experience. The affective impact is that readers of these dissertations distance themselves from subjects in the studies. Those who are victims and/or survivors and end up consciously or unconsciously performing what Donna Haraway referred to as a god-trick.

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Rethinking Masculinity and Practices of Violence

The modified text of an introduction written with Marsha Henry for our special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics on ‘Rethinking Masculinity and Practices of Violence in Conflict Settings’ (trailed here), which came out in December 2012. The full text of the issue is currently freely available. I don’t know for how long, so get to it!


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Why rethink masculinity and conflict? After all, the connection of men and masculinities to organised (and seemingly unorganised) violence has been subject to considerable academic scrutiny over the last decades, not least as part of the feminist critique of disciplinary International Relations. It is now increasingly common to both note the unequal character of gendered violence (it is predominantly men who do the killing and the maiming) and to stress the contingent and sometimes paradoxical status of this situation (women kill and maim too, and the content of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies significantly over time, space and context). The analysis of gender within global politics has also moved beyond the level of the state and war to interrogate the full spectrum of social life, from popular culture to political economy. And yet elite institutions still prove stubbornly resistant to teaching gender, feminism and sexuality within ‘the international’, despite introductory texts which increasingly offer such insights to the curious student.

Although you wouldn’t know it from some of the caricatures in circulation, feminist and gender scholars write often of multiplicity in masculinities, of varied and shifting constructions of gendered agency, and of representations of violence as themselves constitutive of gender, rather than merely reflective of a pre-existing distribution of essences. Some, like Melanie McCarry, have become rather sceptical of this situation, warning that the actions and power of men themselves are obscured in the consensus that there are many masculinities. In other words that multiplicity, discourse and construction are not advances in theory, but ways of displacing responsibility away from concrete male perpetrators. At the same time as they direct attention to the material practices of men such criticisms also tend to gloss over rich and situated examples of critical theorising along exactly those lines. A different brand of critic has sometimes suggested that feminism may be incapable of properly analysing the variety of gendered experiences in conflict. But here too, a comprehensive history of the field instead reveals many close and nuanced considerations of men and women at war.

Nevertheless, ambiguities do persist in the way feminist and gender scholars describe and account for masculinity. Against this background, a number of problems come into sharper focus. First, how are masculinities and violences connected in specific locations of power? Second, how do these connections play out internationally, in the interactions between political communities, however understood? Third, just how related are gendered identities to fighting, killing and dying in conflict settings? And fourth, how do the complexities of violence situated in this way reflect back onto theorising about gendered hierarchy and difference?

Some of these questions are more familiar than others, but the collection of articles presented in our special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics substantially addresses them all (I know, get us, right?). Continue reading

Understanding Peacekeeper Sexual Violence

Why do soldiers rape? When footage of peacekeepers from MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, gang-raping an 18-year old boy surfaced earlier this month, that question resurfaced with it. Official declarations have predictably stressed how unfortunate it is that the actions of ‘a few’ should taint the efforts of ‘the many’, although 108 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were expelled from Haiti for sexual exploitation in 2007, and another Uruguayan soldier was recently discharged for sexual relations with a Haitian minor. Certainly, patterns of similar abuse are not restricted to the Haitian mission. One of the more disturbing points in my brief fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo was when an international human rights official told me, with an almost confessional seriousness, that they had feared more for their sexual integrity while travelling with UN peacekeepers than when interviewing Congolese soldiers.

When discussing rapacious African warriors, it is common to interpret sexual violence as part of a drive to accumulate resources or as the reflection of communal hatred in war. Peacekeeper sexual violence constitutes something of a control case in such debates, since it is much harder to link rape to these dynamics. There is no genocidal project for which peacekeepers are the foot soldiers, and they cannot really be said to be frustrated by poor pay and conditions. Certainly there have been links between sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers and a kind of trade, although in the opposite direction than usually posited. In the case of UN missions, it has been peacekeepers who have exchanged goods for sex with locals, rather than using rape as a means of accessing additional resources for themselves (although they have also been implicated in other criminal networks for financial gain). Peacekeeper practices of sexual abuse are thus closer to sex trafficking and prostitution on a continuum of gendered exploitation than to models of rape as a tool of terror to facilitate resource capture.

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