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

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Fratriarchy, Homoeroticism and Military Culture

The ever-excellent Sociological Images offers up this 1940s advert, and others like it, as an example of how images previously taken to be innocent consumer bait for stereotypical homemakers now appear to us as dripping with homoeroticism. They may have added too that this half-ironic, half-nostalgic distance is what endears us to such images, which we then enjoy as vintage objects, for all that we know about the true historical context in which they were produced.

One common idea, which relates nicely to military bathing aesthetics (cannon towels? really?) is that many bonding behaviours in nominally heterosexual, male-dominated groups are in fact homosexual, but in a disavowed or repressed way. The scrum, the shared shower, the bunk-beds, the exclusion of women not only from the fields of play and war, but also from the various celebrations and carnivals that follow, all seem to indicate a desire for intimacy that cannot be named as such.

In the excellent Bring Me Men (which deserves its own dedicated review), Aaron Belkin identifies a more complex relation. In becoming military men, there is a need not only to disavow femininity, but also to become intimate with the ‘unmasculine’ and the ‘queer’. Rather than identifying a direct alignment of the masculine with the military, or seeing gender norms as accidental in their intersection with the military, there is instead a constitutive tension between the masculine and the unmasculine (or, we might say, between the strongly heteronormative and the homosexual). Basic training relies on a traumatic ambiguity, continually casting initiates as by turns masculine and unmasculine, so that no soldier can ever be sure that they were sufficiently on the ‘right side’ of the line. As one Marine put it: “The opposite of feminine? No. To me, what is masculine? I don’t know. [pause] And I’ve worked so hard at being it”. The continual ambiguity – what Belkin calls discipline as collapse – interacts with surveillance and punishment to produce the soldier-subject.

More brutally: 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.

Continue reading

Symposium: Rethinking Masculinity

UPDATE (19 April): I’ve just received confirmation that a proposal based on this Symposium has been accepted as a Special Issue for the International Feminist Journal of Politics. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Papers not presented at the Symposium will not only be welcome but are actively encouraged. The deadline for first drafts is likely to be in August 2011 for eventual publication in 2012. Further details to follow…


A call for participation in a one-day Symposium at LSE I’ve been involved in organising. It’s taking place in just over three weeks and promises to be very productive and, yes, exciting. Thanks to some funding, places are free, but do email me if you want to come so we can get a sense of numbers for food. There will also doubtless be continuing discussion afterwards. Please distribute widely.


Rethinking Masculinity & Practices of Violence in Conflict Settings


Thursday 5 May 2011

Room Clem.D702, Clement House (on Aldwych), London School of Economics & Political Science

Keynote: Professor Cynthia Cockburn (City University and University of Warwick)

Sponsored by the British International Studies Association Gender IR Working Group, the LSE Department of International Relations and the LSE Gender Institute.

Thinking about masculinity, maleness and men has always had a place in the interdisciplinary fields of feminist, queer and gender studies. Discussion and debate about the relevance of masculinity as a shifting concept has recently been further developed in the fields of politics and International Relations (IR) where scholars have explicitly tried to address women’s experiences in relation to the persistence of the ‘man question’.

Despite this, masculinity in international politics remains somewhat amorphous. Research has tended to be disconnected, addressing particular wars or media events, rather than masculinity as an organising concept or its role across space and time in its historically variable forms. This symposium (and a proposed journal Special Issue arising from it) therefore seeks to extend and deepen work on the conceptual character and concrete forms taken by masculinity through the lens of violence and conflict settings.

Continue reading