Élise Féron

PhD, Docent, Senior Research
Fellow at the Tampere Peace Research Institute (TAPRI)

Marta Bernardi
Current events

How can I speak “for” the victims, and, for that matter, “for” the perpetrators? How can I accurately convey their stories, safely back in the comfort of my everyday Western academic life?

From the introduction of “Wartime sexual violence against men: Masculinities and power in conflict zones” by Élise Féron

Collecting empirical data on the topic of wartime sexual violence is far from easy. Survivors will rather talk about suffering inflicted upon others than upon themselves, and of course it is paramount to avoid re-traumatizing them (Ford et al. 2009, 5). Similarly, perpetrators seldom acknowledge their direct participation and responsibility in these acts. Both perpetrators and survivors frequently use metaphors to speak about sexual violence, which is a good indication of the weight of the stigma surrounding these acts, but which also represents an obvious challenge when analysing interviews. […] I do not claim that my being a white, Western and female researcher puts me in a good position to interpret and understand what I have seen, witnessed and been told. I am well aware of the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation carried by conducting research on a phenomenon taking place in a frame of reference that I cannot fully comprehend, despite being reasonably familiar with both the Great Lakes region of Africa and Northern Ireland, where I have been conducting fieldwork for many years. I am also aware that by choosing to adopt a “narrative ethnographic” approach (Björkdahl and Mannergren Selimovic 2018, 43), I will “inevitably take part in breaking as well as making and maintaining silences and voids” (ibid., 46). […] 

It was never an easy and swift process though, since most survivors of (wartime) sexual violence, male and female, experience difficulties with talking about what happened to them, and since perpetrators are usually more than reluctant to acknowledge their own responsibilities in these acts. […] Taboos surrounding the issue of wartime sexual violence against men are not the only obstacle to the collection of empirical data, though. Many people, including professionals in the field of gender, or in the medical field, seem to be surprisingly unaware or oblivious of the problem. I have found, for instance, while trying to gather testimonies of local doctors or of local medical personnel in the Great Lakes region of Africa, that many confused male-on-male rape and even all the types of male sexual victimization with homosexuality. […] 

Needless to say, researching wartime sexual violence against men hasn’t been a smooth process for me either. Dealing with negative reactions, from open disgust – who, in his or her right mind, could possibly want to study such a gruesome topic? – to accusations of undermining feminist work, has been the least complicated. But collecting survivors’, perpetrators’ and bystanders’ stories has brought its fair share of nightmares, anxiety and distress – especially when coming back from the field – which were also fed by my own doubts about using these very personal and intimate stories in order to write a book. I have sometimes had the feeling of being a voyeur and of profiting from the trust that my interviewees and local contacts, some of whom have become friends, have put in me. How to “reciprocate their generosity”? (Wood 2006, 382) I am deeply conscious of the power relations entailed in my work, from how I have selected my research participants, to interactions during interviews, to the fact that I’m the one who has determined what is important in the story that I have collected, and how to interpret them (Dauphinée 2007, 53). How can I speak “for” the victims, and, for that matter, “for” the perpetrators? How can I accurately convey their stories, safely back in the comfort of my everyday Western academic life? I am still unsure about what answer(s) to give to these questions. In the chapters that follow I have tried to accurately transcribe the diversity in their testimonies, and to convey the irreducible complexity of their journeys, emotions and choices. I hope that by choosing to focus on the truly gruesome experiences, I have not entirely obliterated the courage and resilience that often seeped through their stories.

[1] Féron, É. (2018). Wartime sexual violence against men: Masculinities and power in conflict zones. Rowman & Littlefield.

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