Debating (Wartime) Sexual Violence

Significant debates in the literature on (conflict-related) gendered and sexualized violence have not been featured in the pages of International Studies Quarterly, which has only published a few pieces that focus explicitly on sexual violence (Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2009 and Leiby 2009). This forum on Sara Meger’s article on “The Fetishization of Sexual Violence in International Security” is thus a welcome occasion to reflect on the state of the literature on sexual violence in international-studies scholarship.  

Meger’s provocative piece picks up an argument made by other feminist scholars: Namely that the way in which the issue of wartime sexual violence has been taken up both by the international community at large—as represented by both non-governmental organizations and governmental efforts—unduly narrows the focus of our study of sexual violence. Indeed, she claims it has been fetishized through a three-part process of decontextualization, objectification and blowback. To counter this trend, Meger insists on the need to place sexual violence on a continuum with other forms of violence. This continuum spanning peace and war, as many feminists have noted (e.g. Cockburn 2004), also highlights that “all acts of violence exist on a continuum of violence … which is intimately related to society’s hierarchy of gender, ethnicity, political and civil rights” (Davies and True, 2015; citing Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2009).

To make her argument, Meger covers broad swaths of literature, and this symposium features some of the scholars whose work is either directly invoked in the article itself or is otherwise relevant to showcasing the broader debates about (conflict-related) gendered and sexualized violence and to pushing this conversation further.

The first piece, by Paul Kirby, takes on the question of whether or not securitization of sexual violence, as alleged by Meger, has actually taken place. A co-authored intervention from Harriet Gray and Maria Stern follows, in which the authors discuss the fetishization process as outlined in Meger’s article. In a second co-autored piece, Dara Kay Cohen and Elisabeth Jean Wood take on Meger’s (and other feminists’) claim about the relationship(s) between wartime rape and everyday violence. Last, but not least, Nicola Smith agrees with Meger on the need to look at fetishization and notes that “social scientists produce a great many objects of analysis that are not only fetishized but sexualized too.”

The scholars who have contributed to this forum make a series of important interventions, some of which Meger responds to in her reply which focuses on how particular (feminist) epistemological positions shape these debates. Overall, the symposium serves as a reminder that this is a vibrant research area, fraught with tensions (Al-Ali 2016) and significant challenges in terms of gathering and interpreting data due to historical, cultural and other barriers to reporting and analysis (Davies and True 2015). Meanwhile, important site- and context-specific studies (e.g. Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2013, Boesten 2014) are helping to further our understanding of (conflict-related) gendered and sexualized violence – hopefully this symposium leads more (feminist) scholars to publish this important work in International Studies Quarterly.



Al-Ali, Nadje (2016) Sexual Violence in Iraq: Challenges for Transnational Feminist Politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies. DOI: 10.1177/130506816633723

Boesten, Jelke (2014) Sexual Violence During War and Peace: Gender Power and Post-Conflict Justice in Peru. Palgrave Macmillan.

Cockburn, Cynthia (2004) The Continuum of Violence: A Gender Perspective on War and Peace. In Sites of Violence: Gender and Conflict Zones, edited by Wenona Giles and Jennifer Hyndman. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

Davies, Sara E. and Jacqui True (2015) Reframing Conflict-Related Sexual and Gender-based Violence: Bringing Gender Analysis Back In.  Security Dialogue. 46 (6): 495-512. DOI 10.1177/0967010615601389

Eriksson Baaz, Maria and Maria Stern (2009) Why Do Soldiers Rape? Masculinity, Violence and Sexuality in the Armed Forces in the Congo (DRC). International Studies Quarterly. 53 (2) 495-518.

-- (2013) Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond. London: Zed Books.

Leiby, Michele L. (2009) Wartime Sexual Violence in Guatemala and Peru. International Studies Quarterly. 53 (2) 445-468.

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