Wartime Sexual Violence: Women’s Human Rights and Questions of Masculinity


Alison, Miranda. 2007. “Wartime Sexual Violence: Women’s Human Rights and Questions of Masculinity.” Review of International Studies 33: 75–90.

Author: Miranda Alison


This article examines wartime sexual violence, one of the most recurring wartime human rights abuses. It asserts that our theorizations need further development, particularly in regard to the way that masculinities and the intersections with constructions of ethnicity feature in wartime sexual violence. The article also argues that although women and girls are the predominant victims of sexual violence and men and boys the predominant agents, we must also be able to account for the presence of male victims and female agents. This, however, engenders a problem; much of the women’s human rights discourse and existing international mechanisms for addressing wartime sexual violence tend to reify the male-perpetrator/female-victim paradigm. This is a problem which feminist human rights theorists and activists need to address. (Academic Search Premier)



“Lynne Segal stresses, however, that we could reverse the assumed causal link between masculinity and violence: ‘[t]he idea that what is at stake here is state violence in the hands of men (rather than, as many feminists believe, male violence in the hands of the state) is supported by reports of women’s use of force and violence when they are placed in jobs [or other positions of power] analogous to men’s.’” (Alison,76)

“The homosocial nature of militaries may be necessary for cohesion but its attendant danger of homosexual behaviour does not sit well with the hetero-normativity of hegemonic masculinity. Rape (even, as discussed later, rape of men) serves to reassert heteromasculinity.” (77)

“Finally, it has been noted that gang-rape performs a bonding function for groups of men and that it accounts for a high proportion of wartime sexual violence. Gang-rape cements a sense of loyalty between men and those who might not rape individually do rape collectively in a group assertion of masculinity. Goldstein suggests that raping as part of a group ‘may serve to relieve individual men of responsibility’. I suggest, however, that part of the reason gang-rape promotes group cohesion may be that it bonds men together in a complicity (in fact a shared awareness of responsibility) that makes loyalty to the group vital.” (77)

“‘[I]n wars men only continue to do what they did before but in a more mindless and indiscriminate way’, and that ‘[r]ape . . . happens during war for the same reasons it happens during peace. It is a phenomenon rooted in inequality, discrimination, male domination and aggression, misogyny and the entrenched socialisation of sexual myths.’” (78)

“In contemporary armed conflicts, particularly though not exclusively ethnonational, rape is intentionally committed by specific men against specific women (and men) – namely ‘enemy’ women (and men) – and therefore it cannot be regarded as indiscriminate.” (79)

“During times of conflict multiple binary constructions are formed; not only is ‘masculine’ contrasted to ‘feminine’ within a group and ‘us’ contrasted to ‘them’ between groups, but ‘our women’ are contrasted to ‘their women’ and ‘our men’ to ‘their men’. ‘Our women’ are chaste, honourable, and to be protected by ‘our men’; ‘their women’ are unchaste and depraved. Wartime propaganda presents the (male) enemy as those who would rape and murder ‘our’ women and the war effort is directed at saving ‘our’ women.” (80)

“In wartime, then, male to male rape (as male to female rape) humiliates and feminises the victim whilst asserting the perpetrator’s dominant (heterosexual, ethno-national) masculinity. The ethnonational element means that symbolically the victim’s national identity is also feminised and humiliated. Sexual violence is ‘preferred’, Inger Skjelsbæk suggests, because ‘this is the form of violence which most clearly communicates masculinisation and feminisation’.” (81)

“Women are not only victims of war, they are also agents of violence; men are also victims of sexual violence; the idea of male protection is inherently problematic and can lead in itself to abuses of women; women are not all located the same and one’s positioning impacts on one’s experiences of war. This leads us to a further overriding problem: how to both acknowledge and respond to the reality of male victims and female agents of sexual violence whilst still recognising and acting with the simultaneous reality that women and girls remain the majority of victims and men and boys the majority perpetrators – but, further, that both women’s and men’s ethnic and social positioning contributes enormously to differential experiences.” (84)

“I have argued that a more complex analysis of empirical cases of wartime sexual violence that examines the interplay between masculinity, femininity, ethnicity and sexuality, is required and serves to bring into relief the problems with accepting this binary at face value and wholeheartedly. The example of wartime sexual violence as a problem for women’s human rights, then, illuminates a broader conundrum feminists face: how to ‘do’ women’s human rights if in so ‘doing’ we actually reify certain (unhelpful, incomplete, potentially essentialist) constructs that we also wish to – or need to – annihilate.” (89)

Topics: Armed Conflict, Ethnicity, Feminisms, Gender, Masculinity/ies, Rights, Human Rights, Women's Rights, Sexual Violence, Female Perpetrators, Male Perpetrators, SV against Men, SV against Women

Year: 2007

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