WMC Women Under Siege

10 must-read books on sexualized violence in war

Our mission here at WMC’s Women Under Siege is to add to the public record on sexualized violence in conflict. But if you’re just setting out to learn more about a topic as complicated as this, figuring out where to begin might seem a bit daunting.

In an effort to help our readers gain a nuanced understanding of the issues of gender, sexualized violence, and conflict, we reached out to a number of experts—from journalists to academics to legal professionals—for their recommendations on the most worthwhile reads. From these, we’ve compiled a list of 10 books that cover different aspects of gendered and sexualized violence.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, we hope it will serve as a kind of literary road map for you.


Beverly Allen: Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia
University of Minnesota Press (1996)
Recommended by: Michele Leiby, assistant professor of political science at the College of Wooster in Ohio


Allen uses this book as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the ways in which rape was used during the conflict in the Balkans. While examining the military policy of rape for the purpose of genocide, Allen is adamant that sexualized violence must be understood not as a side effect of war, but as a strategic weapon, born of deeply rooted sentiments of misogyny and nationalism. 


Susan Brownmiller: Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape
Ballantine Books (1993)
Recommended by: Leiby


Seen by many as the pivotal work on the topic, Brownmiller’s book is a groundbreaking examination of politics, rape, and inequality. An excellent window into understanding both the historical and social contexts in which rape exists, it was described by Newsweek as the “most comprehensive study of rape ever offered to the public. … It forces readers to take a fresh look at their own attitudes toward this devastating crime."


Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II
Basic Books (2012)
Recommended by: Elisabeth J. Wood, professor of political science at Yale University and a specialist in sexualized violence


Chang offers an in-depth examination of the events of December 1937, when the Japanese army occupied an ancient Chinese city and unleashed a ruthless campaign of systematic rape, torture, and murder. This thoroughly researched book examines one of the lesser-known nightmares of World War II—and the conditions that allowed it to occur.


James Dawes: Evil Men
Harvard University Press (2013)
Recommended by: Lauren Wolfe, director of WMC’s Women Under Siege


We think of torturers and rapists as “evil,” but here, James Dawes explores what makes a man carry out horrendous acts. Dawes, the director of the program of human rights and humanitarianism at Macalester College in Minnesota, interviewed elderly Japanese war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War. The accounts convey just how intricate the experiences are for everyone experiencing the horror of war—even the perpetrators. Dawes confronts questions about the responsibilities of witnesses, storytellers, and readers when it comes to trauma, suffering, and shame.


Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, Chad F. Emmett: Sex and World Peace
Columbia University Press (2012)
Recommended by: Soraya Chemaly, activist and writer on feminist and gender-related issues


A powerful read, Sex and World Peace draws a clear connection between the security of women and the security of the state, challenging conventional security beliefs and suggesting that only when violence against women is addressed can state security be meaningfully achieved. Using extensive data, the authors offer a multilevel analysis of violence against women and its consequences on the state. The book closes with a series of policy recommendations on how to effectively harness these challenges and improve security—for women and nations.


Gail Kligman: The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu's Romania
University of California Press (1998)
Recommended by: Chemaly


This book offers an in-depth examination of the politics of reproductive rights and the devastating history of Ceausescu’s Romania and its horrific and repressive anti-abortion regime. Kligman examines one of history’s most graphic examples of what happens when the state intervenes in the most personal corners of women’s lives—and the problems that arise when reproductive rights become the decision of the state rather than the woman.


Janie Leatherman: Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict
Polity (2011)
Recommended by: Leiby


Focusing on contemporary wars, Leatherman examines the causes, consequences, and responses to sexualized violence in wartime as well as the factors that motivate people to commit such atrocities. Reflecting on the agency of women and girls in the context of war, she provides a nuanced analysis of factors like masculinity, patriarchy, normalized violence, and systemic attacks. The book closes with a particular emphasis on possible action to improve outcomes for victims at all levels: rehabilitation, reintegration, and reconciliation.


Robin Morgan: The Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism
Washington Square Press (2001)
Recommended by: Wolfe


In this dark work, Morgan scrutinizes terrorism in psychological, political, and sexual contexts, and includes haunting interviews with survivors of terrorist acts. Her analysis of the underpinnings of male violence applies in multiple contexts, from a one-time bus bombing to a full-fledged war. This edition of a 1989 book, which broke new ground as the first feminist analysis of such violence, was rushed into print three months after the September 2001 attacks and became a bestseller within months. 


Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Dina Francesca Haynes, Naomi Cahn: On the Frontlines: Gender, War, and the Post-Conflict Process
Oxford University Press (2011)
Recommended by: Lina M. Céspedes Báez, activist and human rights lawyer in Colombia


The authors put forward a compelling exploration of violence against women in post-conflict settings. Untangling societal, political, and cultural influences, they argue that improving the status of women in postwar settings would serve not only to improve their lives but would ultimately benefit citizens of the state, thus ensuring a more durable peace in transitioning countries.


Weaver, Gina Marie: Ideologies of Forgetting: Rape in the Vietnam War
State University of New York Press (2010)
Recommended by: Wood


This important book was the first in-depth examination of sexualized violence against Vietnamese women by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Weaver emphasizes that recognition of this trauma is not only valuable for the sake of recording history, but for deepening the social understanding of the trauma caused by the conflict. She uses Vietnam as a platform for understanding some of the greater issues of hyper-masculinity and violence ingrained in the culture of the U.S. military.


And for good measure, here are five more we recommend:


More articles by Category: International, Media, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, War, Gender bias



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