Ten Reasons Not To Write Your Master’s Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War, by Marsha Henry

It’s the first day of Lent term and the students are nervously gathered in a small stuffy classroom. When I walk in and head towards the front of the room, the group falls silent. I introduce myself and we start a round of introductions and I ask students to speak briefly about their interest in the course. The first student tells me, and the class, that she’s in IR (International Relations), and is keen to take the course because she’s interested in studying sexual violence in war. Another student turns to her, incredulous because she too is interested in that exact subject, and that furthermore she has worked for 3 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has ‘seen a lot’. A few more students echo similar interests and I’m trying hard not to stereotype these students. But it’s difficult. A mythical figure is beginning to crystallise in my head and I can’t stop it. This figure is young, female and possibly middle-class, sometimes Scandinavian. She’s studying IR, Human Rights or Gender Studies. A few male students also indicate an interest. Some indicate interest in other topics, but there is a numbers problem from the outset. I feel uncomfortable as this is the third year that I’ve taught this course, each time allotting only one lecture week to the subject of sexual violence in war, and subsuming it under the larger heading of ‘gender, sexualised violence and work in militarised contexts’. Each year students have asked for more time to be devoted to the subject, for the lecture week to be moved up, and for their to be less focus on diversity in the armed forces. When students come to me during office hours to discuss the scope of their dissertations on the subject I fidget. After a few conversations with colleagues, I decide I need to start compiling a list – of compelling reasons why students should not write on the subject of sexual violence in war. But what would I do with this list? Can it be shared? And what of my responsibility not to teach on the subject?

10: Writing About ‘It’ Narrows The Political Focus

As a committed feminist, I’m all for drawing significant attention to the ways in which women experience conflict in distinctive ways. But the concentration of interest on sexual violence in wartime often leads to a neglect of the ways in which women experience violence (labelled as sexual or not) in peacetime. This noticeable singular focus on the topic also narrows the possibility of dislodging categories and subject positions. It is often assumed in class conversations, essays and subsequently dissertations that women are the victims and men are the perpetrators of this form of violence. This assumption appears in written work in a way that both masks the possibility of other positionings within the perpetrator-victim continuum, as well as the structurally embedded way in which sexualised violence occurs and is experienced by individuals and communities. This failure to explain the pervasiveness of sexualised violence against women tends to reinforce the binaries and provides a rather fixed aperture for analysing sexual violence in war and its consequences.

9: Researching The Topic Inspires Voyeurism

I’m squirming in my seat as one of the students smiles widely while she explains her interest in working on the topic of sexual violence as a weapon of war. She could be nervous explaining herself in front of her peers and her professor. She could be feeling awkward about the subject matter. She could be conforming to gendered expectations of women in the classroom where female students who express themselves confidently or through feminist rhetoric are categorised as aggressive. If feminist critique is pleasurable, how do we ‘do’ our analysis of sexual violence in wartime, paying attention to experience, trauma, and moral responsibility? There is a tendency, in making visible the ‘horror’ of it all, that students sensationalise the subject by focussing on the minutiae, the details and the thick descriptions. Honing in on the bodily experience of rape, for example, can remove rape in war from the wider social, cultural, economic and political context in which it always takes place. It can be an abstraction of the total experience. The affective impact is that readers of these dissertations distance themselves from subjects in the studies. Those who are victims and/or survivors and end up consciously or unconsciously performing what Donna Haraway referred to as a god-trick.

8: Writing About ‘It’ Invokes Colonial Stereotypes & A Colonial Gaze

Students who are developing gender goggles in regard to militarisation and the effects of war on women tend not to recognise their critiques as potentially reinforcing colonial tropes. Sexual violence in war cannot be easily dislodged from its articulation within colonial narratives. The subject of sexual violence in war is multiplex, precisely because attached to the many narratives and discourses are ideas and metaphors of Africa as a place of barbarity, exceptionalism, alterity: the ‘Heart of Darkness’ (as Margot Wallstrom recently commented in a speech aimed at drawing attention to sexual violence in war). Along with this, African men feature as pathologically violent and therefore prone to participate in sexual violence as a war weapon. The Black Man as Rapist Myth has a long history in colonial and popular accounts, and haunts these dissertations. Add to this, stereotypes of subaltern, ‘Third World’ and African women as the penultimate victims living in what some have deemed the ‘worst place to be a woman’ (DRC), connote many problematic ideas about Africannness, gender and geopolitics.

7: There Will Be An Insufficient Account Of History and Geopolitics

The majority of dissertations focus on the subject of sexual violence in the conflict region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In seminars and supervision sessions in my office, I felt unease with the abbreviation of the full name for the country to Congo. When using the term Congo, students revert the country back to its colonial history and place it at the centre of discussions about sexual violence in war. Few students are interested in studying older conflicts and thus empirical studies of Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo have more or less dropped off of the list of case studies that concern students. These conflicts become archived, shelved into the past in a way that suggests each new and contemporary conflict is somehow more worthy of study. It is almost as if students feel that if the study is not located in the ‘heart’ of Africa, it is a lesser form of violence to document. As such, ‘random’ acts of sexual violence (read: everyday), become too mundane to feature. In addition, larger relations of global politics across geographic contexts are left unaddressed. What is the relationship between where sexual violence is used as a weapon of war and the body of academic knowledge being produced in order to expose it? Students do not always think about the power relations between those who are able to speak about sexual violence, to name the victims and the perpetrators, likely at a distance, and those who witness, but who may not want to testify, speak to truth or even to be given what Pupavac has termed ‘therapeutic governance’.

6: Ethical Dilemmas are Rarely Challenged or Resolved by Writing

How can I object to outrage and criticism of rape? And sexual violence as a weapon of war? To criticise someone else’s criticism of gender-based violence would be itself an ethical challenge. As such, writing on the subject of sexual violence as a weapon of war can create an ethical vacuum and a political seal around the discussion, making it morally reprehensible to challenge the way in which arguments are strung together, information is arranged and presented, and the geo-ontological space from where the student speaks about (or for) women who have experienced sexual violence during conflict. As such these dissertations and essays provide little opportunity for discussing the politics of representation, the ethics of humanitarian intervention, the imbalance of power produced by international global governance institutions, and the dilemmas of treating rape survivors as a means to a (feminist) end. Many of the dissertations end up treating sexual violence as a weapon of war as a grand anecdote, used instrumentally to critically comment on the state of sexism and militarism in the world order – a laudable goal and necessary critique – but what about the simultaneous responsibility to acknowledge academic privilege? Moral compasses need to be checked: student and myself.

5: Where Are You From?: Positionalities, Standpoints, and Situated Knowledges

In addition to the ethical dilemmas that are not considered sufficiently, there is the question of perspective. Which type of student is able to write about sexual violence as a weapon of war? And worse, what about the students that may have (recently) experienced war (Swati Parshar recently spoke about the methodological and ethical dilemmas of teaching about gender and war at ISA San Diego). How can sexual violence as a weapon of war be articulated? What are the registers available? And from which geopolitical position can the subject be approached? At least two types of students emerge in relation to this growing interest in the topic. White, middle-class, (sometimes-Scandinavian) female students have told me over the past two years, that they want to write about the subject. I try not to think of the growing problem of students just a few years back who developed a mass obsession with writing about the veil, but I’m experiencing intertextual anxt. The other student ‘figure’ emerging is the young, feminist-sensitive white, middle-class male – who is likely to be from Europe or the US. He is interested in meticulously mapping the issue, demonstrating some of the quantitative complexities of sexual violence. But I’m grossly generalising here. Mastery narratives are infused in many of the students’ desires. I’m trying not to jump to conclusions. Am I being too sensitive about positionality? Why does it matter where the student is standing, thinking and feeling? If all knowledge is situated then cannot this problem be resolved by a mere paragraph or two in the dissertation giving the usual declarations of privilege, reflexivity and western attachment? I’ve got my doubts.

4: Singularising Grammar

Recent work by Maria Eriksson-Baaz and Maria Stern, and Paul Kirby shows the dangers of not paying attention to grammar and narrative form when analysing the subject of sexual violence as a weapon of war. A tendency towards specific types of narratives, or a singularising grammar can have a number of problematic effects. Again, student dissertations and essays can adopt a colonial gaze, therefore unproblematically analysing the subject of gender-based violence without sufficient attention to a critical ‘race’ perspective on the subject. In addition, singularising grammars tend to reinforce and crystallise binaries and binary thinking. Only one sexed subject can be the victim and the opposite [sic] sexed subject remains perpetually the perpetrator. Students need to pay attention to the modes of writing they are engaged in. And, of course, not just for the subject of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

3: Encourages A Non-Feminist Standpoint

Sexual violence as a weapon of war is a subject that encourages a mastery complex in students. It becomes another subject to be managed, mapped, tallied and diagrammed. Some students over the years have continually crafted lengthy, worthwhile dissertations analysing issues of validity and reliability of statistics available, especially on the DRC. One student wrote a comprehensive analysis in a recent essay, without once making reference to the politics of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The dissertation outlined all of the arguments for and against taking numbers seriously, different variables that should or should not be included, causes including greed and grievance, and finally some of the ways in which practices vary from context to context, citing the infamous piece by Elizabeth Jean Wood which shows that sexual violence in war cannot be explained on simplistic biological arguments. But should dissertations on sexual violence in war pay adequate attention to the political perspectives of feminist scholars and activists? Is this attempt to say everything possible about sexual violence as a weapon of war a reterritorialising and silencing move? Is it an attempt to master the subject without paying attention to the ways in which sexual violence is embedded within social, political and cultural relations, and require all students of the subject to ask moral, ethical and political questions?

2: It Inspires Problematic Proximity and/or Remoteness

Dissertations and essays often take an intimate or proximate approach to the subject, or remove themselves from the messiness of experience altogether. For example, some dissertations spend a great deal of time illustrating the ‘horrors’ of sexual violence as a weapon of war, reiterating victims narratives from various primary (or not) sources. In an attempt to draw significant attention to the seriousness of sexual violence as a weapon of war, and the dismissal of it as a systematic practice, students spend considerable time illustrating the bodily affects of such war practices, sometimes describing in visceral terms the embodied details of violence through film clips, testimonies and journalist exposes. Vicarious trauma can be evidenced, in addition to forms of witnessing, and voyeurism. Many of the accounts are repetitively traumatic (oftentimes for the reader), with multiple essays and dissertations on the subject, following similar grammatical registers and rhetorical strategies as outlined above. At the same time as the proximity becomes vulgar, there is also a simultaneous distancing that occurs. The ‘inhumanity’, ‘exception’, and ‘bare life’, depicted in the students’ words creates a rupture in the reader’s ability to engage. It dehumanises the victims as it does the audience. This is sometimes reinforced through a ‘rational’ and ‘matter-of-fact’ tone. The rape narrative is elevated and becomes untouchable – and even unmarkable.

1: Replication and Reiteration Are No Good

Here’s another important reason not to write a dissertation on sexual violence as a weapon of war in the DRC. It’s been done already! Students continually ask me ‘can you suggest a couple of books on the subject?’. Where to start? There is so much to be said about gender and violence in militarised contexts more generally, but there has also been a great deal written about by a number of scholars. And it is precisely this body of knowledge that has sometimes been misanalysed by students. That is, although much of this writing has politically exposed the issue, students often read it as a holistic canon on the subject, interpreting the text as they wish. Dissertations often become regurgitated and simplistic snapshots of other work, reinforcing particular perspectives and portrayals and therefore contributing to the reification of the subject (missing a cogent assessment of narrative forms). A rhetorical stasis is created, where certain material and citations are circulated and re-circulated, with little new insight or critical perspective provided.

So these are my thoughts about writing on the subject of sexual violence as a weapon of war and a list of reasons why I think students should not write their dissertations on the subject. There are clearly many potential pitfalls. All of these reasons demand another set of analyses which is to do with how I should teach about sexual violence in war, although in many ways this, I think is a much harder task. In the meantime, can we have a moratorium on dissertations on sexual violence as a weapon of war?

Marsha Henry is Lecturer in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the LSE Gender Institute, where she teaches, amongst other things, a course on gender and militarism. Her most recent research is into sexual exploitation in peacekeeping missions and peacekeeper labour hierarchies, and she is also, with Paul Higate, author of Insecure Spaces: Peacekeeping, Power and Performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia (Zed, 2009). This post is based on a presentation given in San Francisco at the International Studies Association in April 2013. This post was originally published on the blog The disorder of things


  1. “Here’s another important reason not to write a dissertation on sexual violence as a weapon of war in the DRC. It’s been done already! ” “Dissertations often become regurgitated and simplistic snapshots of other work, reinforcing particular perspectives and portrayals and therefore contributing to the reification of the subject ”

    Surely this applies to every possible topic a 3 month Msc dissertation is likely to cover? I tell my students not to worry about having ‘the same topic’ because they all read the sources differently and say something interesting. And, for the most part that’s true.

  2. Sara, you raise a good point about other issues that my critique could be applied to—for example the subject of sex trafficking—but I do not think that it easily applies to EVERY possible topic that a dissertation is likely to cover. Unfortunately, I have found that in dissertations and essays on sexual violence in war that while students do make some original points throughout, they also repeat a great deal of information, analysis and perpetuate problematic representations. I would encourage students to think and write critically, whether or not they can say something different or interesting.

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