What is sexual about conflicted-related sexual violence?

Chris Dolan, Maria Eriksson-Baaz, Maria Stern

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People march through the streets of Lyon to protest against gender-based and sexual violence, 24 November 2018. Photo: Nicolas Liponne/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Paradoxically, the idea that sexual violence is somehow sexual has been largely silenced in academic, policy and media arenas. Dominant notions that Conflict Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) serves as a weapon or tactic of war that is not motivated by sexual desire or pleasure persist, despite a growing cadre of criticism. CRSV therefore appears as already understood, and questions about the sexual aspect of sexual violence are rarely posed, especially to those who have endured — and continue to endure — its harms.

Indeed, surprisingly little attention has been paid at all to how survivors of CRSV, themselves, make sense of their experiences and the injury that such violence causes, despite growing calls for survivor-centered initiatives and scholarship. Even less attention is paid to what survivors deem to be sexual about the violence to which they were subjected, how they comprehend perpetrators’ motives or experiences, and how their sense-making influences their perception of themselves as victims.

The testimonies in our recent article, which was based on interviews with survivors of CRSV who have fled to Uganda from neighbouring countries, urge us to rethink established notions about CRSV. In particular, they put into question the supposition that such violence is not about ‘sex’. The survivor stories we recount are inescapably about the linkages and distinctions between violence and the sexual in CRSV, experienced in the moment of the incidents themselves and in their aftermath, as survivors engage in the process of re-making their selves and their lives. We learn that in order to understand and address CRSV, we must listen to the voices of those who have been subject to it, and not sweep a key element of the harms that they endured under the rug of politically palatable discourse.

In more far-reaching terms, we hold that the implications of a survivor-centred interpretation of the sexual in sexual violence are multiple. First, in considering both men’s and women’s stories, the gender-binary of male perpetrators and female victims is unsettled; people of all genders are survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence. Second, not only is rape challenged in its long-held position at the top of an assumed hierarchy of sexual harms, but the very idea of a hierarchy is largely thrown into question. Third, the suffering experienced by the direct victims of sexual violence are shown to occasion harms to those they are in relationship with (not just intimate relationships with spouses or partners, but also non-intimate yet essential relationships, such as parents-children).

What these in turn imply is that much academic, activist and policy work on CRSV, is, by erasing important dimensions of sexual violence, misdirecting our attention and interventions. This is not merely a question of practitioners thinking about how to work with survivor constituencies that have traditionally eluded them, but, more fundamentally a political question.

In short, recognising the sexual in sexual violence matters for a multiplicity of important reasons. From the perspective of a survivor whose sexuality, and as a consequence whose sexual and affective life — as well as family, community, social and political life — have been profoundly disturbed, the sexual in sexual violence is a central concern. For those with whom she, he or they are in close relationship, addressing the sexual harms occasioned by sexual violence can be a key to healing reverberating harms. For those who seek to understand sexual violence from an academic perspective, or to prevent and respond from a practitioner or policy perspective, recognising that the sexual in sexual violence is of significance is an essential step away from a top-down — sometimes neo-colonial — positionality and gaze. Without that move, work on the issues of sexual violence can never live up to the promise latent in the phrase ‘survivor-centred approaches to sexual violence’.

Chris Dolan is the Director of the Refugee Law Project, Makerere University Kampala, and a Visiting Professor at the Transitional Justice Institute and INCORE, Ulster University.

Maria Eriksson Baaz is Professor in Political Science at the Department of Government, Uppsala University, Sweden.

Maria Stern is Professor in Peace and Development Studies at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Their article ‘What is sexual about conflict-related sexual violence? Stories from men and women survivors’ was published in the September 2020 issue of International Affairs and can be read here.

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International Affairs Blog

The official blog of International Affairs, the peer-reviewed journal of Chatham House.

International Affairs

Written by

A leading journal of international relations, edited at Chatham House. Subscribe at http://cht.hm/2iztRyb. Follow for analysis on the latest global issues.

International Affairs Blog

The official blog of International Affairs, the peer-reviewed journal of Chatham House.

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