The Landscape of Silence
C. Hurst & Co 256pp £25
The subject of this book is a difficult one, which is all too often ignored in discussions of sexual violence in wartime. Misra sets out to map the experiences of such violence from the perspective of victim and perpetrator, and the silences around the subject. Using a multidisciplinary social scientific approach, drawing on anthropology, political theory, philosophy, sociobiology, law and psychology, Misra addresses his subject thematically, including, in relation to the body, nationalism, the psychology of the perpetrator, law, memory and resilience. He covers a huge range of theorists working in the fields of gender, war and violence, often at the expense of analysis of his own semi-formal interviews with victims and perpetrators of such violence. This, combined with the wide definitions of conflict adopted, including communal violence, the ‘war on drugs’, civil resistance movements and more formally recognised civil and international warfare, means that there is little space for systematic analysis of primary material, which is deployed anecdotally and sporadically.
Unfortunately, history is not one of the disciplines that Misra includes. Instead, the introductory survey of the historic record of sexual violence against men begins in the ancient period before skipping to a very brief mention of imperial histories and then to examples of sexual violence against men in the Second World War. The violent conflicts which shaped the medieval and early modern worlds across the globe are barely acknowledged as part of the context of the contemporary social and academic landscape of silence.
The lack of historical context would be less problematic were it not for Misra’s critique of academic literature as failing to examine the specific question of sexual violence against men in conflict. While there is certainly less material on the subject than on violence against women, the claim is slightly disingenuous in light of historical works such as Branche’s and Virgili’s collection Rape in Wartime (2012) and Bourke’s Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present (2007). Discussions of violence against women may dominate these studies but to ignore this perspective almost completely, even contextually, as Misra does, is also problematic. Whether in terms of the role of potential procreation in the use of rape as a tool of domination or the bodily differences between men and women in shaping the methods of sexual humiliation and torture, the subject of sexual violence against women has the potential to enlighten our understanding of sexual violence against men and cannot be ignored.
Ultimately, this book does achieve its stated goal of raising awareness of a complex subject. Unfortunately, it does so in ways that are often incoherent and intellectually problematic, while for the more general reader the academic language and thematic structure create barriers to full engagement with the text. Misra is right to call for further and broader discussion; sadly his work here adds little to the conversation.
Jessica Meyer is University Academic Fellow in Legacies of War in the School of History at the University of Leeds.