Home>Approaching the history of sexual violence


Approaching the history of sexual violence

Elissa Mailänder is an Associate professor at the Center for History at Sciences Po. Her work focuses on violence from a gender perspective. She answers our questions on sexual violence. An interview.

What constitutes sexual violence?

Violence encompasses a broad spectrum of actions and experiences, from threatening or insulting words and gestures, to physical or psychological abuse and injury, and finally killing. Perpetrators experience violence in distinctly different ways than do their victims, yet for both it can be very traumatic. For those who endure it, violence inflicts pain, fear, and long-lasting physical and psychological scars, while for those who perpetrate it, violence brings a feeling of power and, in many cases, pleasure.

Sexual violence is a very specific form of assault that links violence and sexuality. Here too, it starts with words and gestures that sexualise persons or body parts, extending to forced undressing and unwanted touching, to coerced prostitution, sexual torture, and rape. This broad definition includes acts such as (military) hazing or forms of bullying that have only recently been identified as sexual assault. Sexual violence is highly subjective and, at the same time, also fundamentally social, as it is informed by cultural norms of sexuality and aggression. With the international Research Group “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict”, I explore conflict-related sexual violence as part of a longstanding interdisciplinary debate. Most remarkable yet also disturbing, from a historical point of view, is the pervasiveness of sexual violence in society and culture, law and politics, across centuries and across the globe. Even today, sexual violence is omnipresent and at the same time hidden in plain sight.

Since when have we actually talked about and studied this particular and very intimate form of violence?

In light of the 2017 global #Metoo (#balancetonporc) movement and the more recent French debates on #MeTooInceste and #SciencesPorcs, sexual violence has become a prime public topic of discussion. Powerful men – producers, politicians, actors, directors, journalists, and university professors – have been publicly accused of sexual harassment, assault, and rape by a growing number of women and men. Some might perceive the intensity and ubiquity of the debate on sexual violence as disturbingly “too much”. Yet we ought to remind ourselves that fifty years ago, there was no public awareness and even less a common language for this debate. Feminist activists were the first to tackle the issue since the 1960s and to break the silence, by raising awareness, holding teach-ins, and giving a name to sexual harassment, domestic violence, marital rape, etc. Second wave feminists understood speaking out as an act of defiance and resistance to the silence and shame imposed by politics, society, or the immediate social environment. Public actions in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Take-Back-the-Night-rallies in the USA or the women’s shelters installed in London, Berlin and Paris, framed sexual as well as domestic violence as a collective issue that all women faced, most systematically women of color. This grassroots activism that involved both women and men held importance for individuals (agency, resilience, empowerment) but also acted as a tool for social change.

Marie Mercat-Bruns just recently pointed out the importance of the 1980s for legal change.

It was indeed an important watershed when Feminist theory and the conceptual framework activists had developed translated into the legal system. Since the 1990s sexual violence has gained particular traction in political debates, international law, and research. The wars waged in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as the speaking-out of mostly Korean victim-survivors of sexual slavery perpetrated by the Japanese army in the Asia-Pacific war, brought war-related sexual violence to the global agenda. Nongovernmental organisations played a key role in supporting the victims and the UN Security Council passed a series of resolutions condemning and criminalising sexual violence in armed conflict. Since 1999, we have seen a variety of International Courts, the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery or the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, judging cases of sexual violence, ethnic cleansing rape, and sexual enslavement. The databases or sources - predominantly witness reports and interrogations - gathered by these tribunals have clearly shown that more than other forms of aggression, sexual violence involves a variety of bystanders, both forced and voluntary. What makes sexual violence so prevalent and pervasive - be it in peacetime or in armed conflict - is the fact that it is deeply entrenched in institutional life (the military and the church, schools, universities, factories, offices, families) and in national politics, which at different levels and to varying degrees condone or tolerate sexual violence.

What are the mechanisms behind violence and sexual aggression?

All human bodies are (sexually) vulnerable, something we have the tendency to willfully ignore, as a personal experience but also as a social condition or historical narrative. Yet we also have to face the fact that potentially any person can become a perpetrator. In armed conflict we observe often enough that the boundaries between victims and executioners of violence can become blurry – which makes the topic so sensitive. Violence is by definition a very complex social and cultural phenomenon that demands a multi-causal approach. In the past we have given far too much importance to the motivations of the perpetrators. But violence – executed individually or collectively – always occurs in specific situations. Power relations are key to any form of violence and even more so when we deal with sexual violence, as sexual abuse – like torture or cruelty – can only happen in an asymmetric constellation of power. The pressing question then is: who feels entitled to do harm to other people? And who becomes a target of violence in a specific social setting? In addition, I would add, sexual violence does not simply boil down to male oppressors and female victims. Men are also potential victims of sexual assault - not to mention trans people, who have a long history of being victims of violence. And women can become sexual aggressors, even though men still remain the main perpetrators of sexual violence.

How can history contribute to shedding new light on violence?

Historians deal a lot with violence and conflict, which leave archival traces: slavery and colonial exploitation, for instance, or divorces, litigations with social services, and encounters with the police. Although we work extensively with legal documents, historians are not prosecutors, nor judges, and thus in the rather privileged position – if I may say so – of being able to take a step back and embrace multiple perspectives. When it comes to the “simple” question of what triggers violence and aggression, history invites us to look at a variety of actors, from well-known perpetrators and political leaders to ordinary people, soldiers, or civilians. I work a lot on Nazism, looking at socialisation, career tracks, and mechanisms of peer pressure between camp guards, ordinary soldiers or Nazi functionaries. Physical violence was certainly not the primary motivation for signing up for these jobs, yet it is interesting to observe how quickly people became accustomed to violence, some even developing a taste for it. Violence empowered the perpetrators while simultaneously dehumanising their targets. In addition, humiliation and sexual abuse served as bonding rituals where perpetrators negotiated power relations with each other. Zooming into this micro-level reveals how multifaceted Nazi perpetrators were, as a mass murderer or sexual predator could at the same time be a well-respected colleague, a loving father, or a caring husband. While the perpetrators of violence and genocide are certainly a key focus, they should, however, not be our sole concern. Historical research on violence has made a compelling case for the fundamental role a compliant immediate social environment (family members, the comrades of a battalion, work-colleagues, etc.) plays in facilitating (or preventing) violence, as well as larger institutional settings and mainstream society.

What do you mean by a “compliant” social environment and how exactly does this contribute to violence?

To give you an example, approximately 1.5 million Austrian and German women supported National Socialist projects of war and occupation, either as professionals such as nurses, secretaries, or auxiliaries of the Wehrmacht and SS, or as wives (DE) of Nazi functionaries. None of these women perceived themselves as political agents or facilitators of violence. An examination of their workaday lives reveals the multiple ways these women adapted to the regime, at their workplace and at home. The conditions for violent actions were certainly “provided” by the institutional framework and the Nazi extermination policies. But these conditions were also negotiated, altered, and produced by the ordinary secretaries, nurses, and translators on the ground who worked close enough to the shooting sites or the ghettos to witness expulsion, violence, and mass murder. Some even had picnics beside mass graves. To be sure, the overwhelming majority kept their distance and concentrated on their work. As spectators and as co-workers of the killers, however, these women had an important role in promoting violence. I am not solely talking about motives or intentionality here, but also about the often unforeseen repercussions of human actions. To quote Michel Foucault: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does.” The cheers or opportunistic “going with the flow” of the above-mentioned women empowered the perpetrators. But so did the inaction of those who stayed aloof, whose silence helped to normalise and thereby legitimise genocide. Perhaps the most radical conclusion is that there is no “out-group” in constellations of murder: the more people tolerate, the greater the possibilities for violence.

What about the victims? How should we study those who have suffered and endured sexual violence?

For Europe, the history of the Nazi occupation and, above all, the Holocaust has shown that marginalised women were particularly vulnerable to abuse of their sexuality (rape, sexual exploitation, forced pregnancy) and of their maternal responsibility (forced sterilisation, forced abortion, suicide, infanticide), be it in the ghettos and camps, in resistance groups, or in hiding and escape. Feminist historians have made a strong argument that women (and men) who experienced sexual violence cannot be reduced to victimhood; they are also survivors. Sometimes women traded sex for food, in order to avoid starving to death or to support their families. In such extreme and life-threatening conditions, the term “consent” does not make much sense, as the women would not have engaged in sexual barter under peacetime conditions. At the same time, we need to recognise their agency, however limited and coerced, and to respect their choices. In the Holocaust, but actually in any conflict, the ways in which women (and men) are sexually (ab)used or use their sexuality are commonly ignored because they shed a disturbing light on society as a whole, including the societies of the oppressed. Whether inside ghettos, in concentration camps, in occupied Europe or in Nazi Germany, sexuality and sex are deeply marked by inequalities and hierarchies between and among men and women, based on ethnic, national or political affiliations, language, religion, class, gender, and sexual orientation.

Why is it so important to adopt a “gendered” lens when studying violence?

Because there are gender-inflected conditions and constellations of abuse – and by gender I do not mean merely the binary opposition of men and women. Exploring the workings of masculinities and femininities tells us a great deal about how power and domination work in micro-social settings, how occupation, colonisation, and exploitation of human labour function, and how mass violence and genocide can become a profession and even an attractive career. If we understand gender as a socio-historical interaction - as doing gender - there is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ about acting like a man or woman in a certain group, society, or specific situation. Applied to Nazi perpetrators and mass violence, a gender-smart observation allows us to dig deeply into the often-fraught dynamics of (para)military masculinities. If SS-men imagined and negotiated their own manliness vis-à-vis their comrades and male superiors through violence, female guards too had something to prove; they performed for their male colleagues but also other women. My point here is that violence is a social practice and that gender is less about biological difference and sexed roles or identities that one adopts or abandons, than it is about performativity and the social power relations which are constantly negotiated and enacted in a male-versus-female framework but also in male and female homosocial spaces. A gender lens thus invites us to investigate the rivalries and relationships of power, based on perceived differences, between and within the sexes. It also challenges us to question women’s share in the perpetration of violence, because women are not always on the “good” side. Nazism and other racially segregated societies show that female members of the dominant group can be objects of sexist policies while at the same time perpetrators of racial discrimination and facilitators of violence.

To conclude, how can we apply these insights to present-day problems?

The act of killing, raping, or harassing is never self-evident – all forms of violence need thorough investigation. In my work, I focus on the “every day,” that is, on mundane workplace interactions or private encounters between family or friends. These private, “safe” spaces are where people re-invent and present themselves daily as masculine/feminine, men/women or transgender, using gender-coded gestures, language, and informal bonding rituals. Sexual violence in peacetime and in armed conflict are informed by these gendered scripts at work in societies. If we want to know more about the specific social and cultural settings that produce violence, be it in institutions like universities, elite schools, the military, the church, or the family, we should pay close attention to these seemingly banal, everyday settings in which the personal becomes political.


Elissa Mailänder, Associate professor at Sciences Po

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