Sexual Macroviolence

Research groups - Macro-Violence
Start of project: November 2015

The purpose of this dissertation project is to decipher the specific dynamics of sexual violence in war.

Sexual violence in wartime is directed mostly against women and girls. It is perceived as an explicit weapon that targets the civilian population in a war zone. Theoretical discourse classifies sexual violence as a strategic weapon of war and considers the female body to be another theater of war (Farwell, Bergoffen and others). This perspective results in primarily instrumental explanatory models for the occurrence of sexual violence in war. This approach was and is of great importance in understanding the genocide in Rwanda, the war in Bosnia, and especially the international prosecution of war crimes. Nevertheless, analyses that focus on this instrumental dimension risk rationalizing and thus disregarding the actual act of violence. Moreover, in many explanatory approaches, the narrative of male perpetrators and female victims (which applies in the majority of cases) eliminates from the outset opportunities for taking other gender constellations into account during analysis.

In this project, sexual macroviolence is, first of all, understood as sexual violence perpetrated collectively by combatants. It is determined by the relationship between victims, perpetrators, and a third entity: a higher authority that, as the military leadership, has a varying extent of influence on the exercise of violence. This figure of the third entity, as a bystander, is an established subject of investigation in research on violence. As a commander, this figure takes on an additional meaning that is central to understanding sexual violence during war. Military leadership endorses or prohibits sexual violence for normative, practical, or strategic reasons. However, recent studies indicate that in weakened hierarchies, negotiation processes in smaller units and on lower command levels have significant impact on the exercise of sexual violence (Wood 2010, Cohen 2013). In response to the loss of discipline, the command level must also react, which means that the dynamics of military violence are characterized by the mutual interaction of three actors.

The understanding of macroviolence as a triadic constellation therefore constitutes the starting point of the project. By addressing the third party on a theoretical level, this study aims to develop further the concept of sexual macroviolence to reach a better understanding of why sexual violence is selected so often from the extensive repertoire of forms of violence. What is the relationship between sexual and other forms of violence? Who becomes an individual perpetrator, and how?

The mutual relationships between perpetrators, victims, and the third party can be understood only when the social orders which characterize these relationships are taken into consideration. The project will therefore follow its investigation of these three actors with research on the institutions, practices, and norms that organize life in war situations and facilitate the occurrence of mass sexual violence. On one hand, the project will investigate the influence of the military’s organizational framework on the potential for violence among combatants. On the other hand, it will examine the local institutions and norms that define the society in question and that determine social relationships between the actors. Central to this, in particular, are the norms that pertain to sexuality and the understanding of gender and their transformation in the course of a conflict or with the progression of sexual violence. The interaction between social order and violence is especially significant in the context of sexual violence because this form of violence, in particular, does not appear out of thin air. It develops within existing social constellations of order and will, in turn, affect them in the future.