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Exploring the Memorialisation of Sexual Violence: an interview with Dr Harriet Gray

Executive Summary: In this interview, Professor Mike Spagat and Harriet Gray, a Senior Lecturer at the University of York, discuss the memorialization of sexual violence in various contexts, including the Column of Strength in San Francisco and the Petrified Survivors’ Initiative. They also consider the benefits and drawbacks of using the list-of-names approach commonly used for war deaths. Gray highlights the importance of respecting survivors’ preferences for public identification, considering the stigma surrounding sexual violence. The conversation also covers the role of female anger in addressing sexual violence, emphasizing the need to recognize the continuum of violence that extends from war to domestic situations. Gray underscores the importance of making connections between different forms of sexual violence in memorials to challenge nationalist rhetoric and prevent the co-optation of concern about sexual violence for nationalist ends.

Harriet Gray is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York, UK. Her research interests fall within the overlapping fields of critical military studies, critical war studies, and feminist international relations. Her work has been published in journals including European Journal of International Relations, International Feminist Journal of Politics, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Security Dialogue, and Gender, Place and Culture. She is an Associate Editor of Critical Military Studies. Much of Harriet’s work to date has focused on gender-based violence in armed forces and conflict spaces. At present she is PI on an ESRC New Investigator Grant project exploring the memorialisation of sexual violence across war and peace in the contemporary USA, which forms the focus of this interview.

Michael Spagat is a Professor of Economics at RoyalHolloway College, University of London.  He gained his Ph.D. at HarvardUniversity and earlier held faculty posts at BrownUniversity and the University of Illinois.  Spagat’s published papers on armed conflict have been published in Nature, Scientific Reports, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Peace Research, the Journal of Conflict Resolution and PLoS Medicine among other places.  His current research addresses universal patterns in modern war, fabrication in survey research, the Dirty War Index civilian casualties in the Iraq conflict and problems in the measurement of war deaths.   He blogs on war at https://mikespagat.wordpress.com/. He is on the board of AOAV.

Interview

Mike Spagat
Can you give me an example of a sexual violence memorial that you consider to be highly effective? Perhaps we can start with a memorial addressing sexual violence within the context of war?

Harriet Gray
There are a couple that I would like to flag – one that already exists and one that doesn’t, yet. Most (although not all) of the existing memorials remembering sexual violence in conflict are dedicated to the so-called ‘comfort women’ of the Asia-Pacific War.

One of the most well-known of these is in San Francisco, and it’s called the Column of Strength. It is a statue of three young girls, raised up on a plinth, who represent Korea, China, and the Philippines, respectively. These were the three countries from which the largest numbers of victims of the comfort system were taken. Standing on the floor, looking up at the girls, is a life-size statue of Kim Hak-sun, the first survivor of the comfort system to publicly identify herself as part of the movement in the 1990s that began to demand recognition of the comfort system as a human rights violation, and to call for an apology and reparations from the Japanese government. I like this monument because it visually pushes against the somewhat problematic tendency in some of the efforts to memorialise the comfort women to act as if this is only a Korea/Japan issue – and, indeed, the memorial’s plaque also links this historical violence to sexual violence in other war-zones and to contemporary sex trafficking, too, which is really important. In addition I think that the inclusion of Kim Hak-sun is really effective, because it means it is not just a monument to victimisation but it is also to activism, which highlights the powerful women’s movement, in South Korea and beyond, seeking to end sexual violence in conflict, sex trafficking, and other violations of women’s human rights. It’s also really powerful that this particular memorial has never been seen by those who worked to create it (the Comfort Women Justice Coalition) as an end in itself – it is very much part of a movement. That is, this memorial has never just been about a piece of bronze in a public park; rather, it is one piece in the jigsaw of a really vibrant ongoing political campaign in San Francisco and beyond which engages broadly with the history of the Asia-Pacific war and with contemporary violations of human rights in dynamic and multifaceted ways.

The other one I would like to flag, one that doesn’t exist yet, is the Petrified Survivors’ Initiative. I was lucky enough to see a maquette of this artwork, created by sculptor Rebecca Hawkins, at the International Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative Conference in London in November 2022. The planned sculpture is of a woman looking up at the sky with a baby on her back in a sling, and the two of them are wrapped in the vines of a strangler fig. Woven into the vines of the strangler fig are symbols that represent victim-survivors of sexual violence from multiple conflicts – a white rose for Bosnian survivors, a nissan flower for Yazidi survivors, a white nun orchid for Guatemalan survivors, a red rose with a passionfruit for Rwandan survivors, an anemone flower for Kosovan survivors. There are also some symbols of childhood woven in there – a toy car and some children’s shoes. The artist has been working with multiple survivor groups to come up with the symbols that are included. As the multiple symbols suggest, this is designed as a global memorial. So, what I like about this is that pulls together multiple histories of conflict-related sexual violence. In doing this, it highlights the interconnections between experiences of sexual violence across different warzones as well as the systemic underpinnings of gender-based violence.

Mike Spagat
OK, great. Is there another one that you’d like to focus on, perhaps one not necessarily having to do with war?

Harriet Gray
Yes, so I’ve recently returned from a trip to Minneapolis, where I got to see the Survivors’ Memorial. This is billed as the first permanent national memorial to survivors of sexual violence in the US, and I don’t know of anything else quite like it elsewhere in the world. It has a large circle of stone benches, and these are designed as a space for survivors to come together and share their experiences in community. The ground in this area has a ripple pattern in it, representing the way in which one survivor breaking their silence can have a ripple effect of encouraging others to do the same (although, I couldn’t see the ripple pattern on this visit because it was covered in snow). Then there are five mosaic panels, created by local artist Lori Greene, which tell a survivor’s story, from isolation and pain to healing and reconnection with community. The mosaics are really beautiful – the colours are so vibrant – but more than that it’s a really powerful space because it has been designed specifically as a place for survivors. Its message is all about how survivors shouldn’t be expected to heal in private or to take sole responsibility for that healing – our culture has to change so that it better supports survivors, and the community has to come together for this purpose.

Mike Spagat
I looked over the wonderful website that you’ve set up for your big project and was immediately drawn into a piece that you wrote about the book Know My Name: a Memoir by Chanel Miller because a common approach to memorialising war deaths is to produce a list of names of people who have been killed. Can you share briefly Chanel Miller’s story, focusing in particular on her thinking that that led to her book title?

Harriet Gray
Yes, so in 2015, when Chanel Miller was 22 , she attended a party at a fraternity house on Stanford campus with her sister and some friends. Miller had a lot to drink, as people do at student parties, and became separated from her friends. A Stanford student called Brock Turner sexually assaulted Miller behind a dumpster while she was unconscious. The assault was interrupted by two postgraduate students who happened to be cycling past, who stopped it and restrained Turner until the police arrived. Turner was eventually convicted of three counts of sexual assault but received a very lenient sentence – six months in county jail (of which he served three) and three years’ probation. (In addition, Turner will be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life.) The judge, who was later recalled as a result of this case, made some very ill-advised comments about how a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner’s future. There was also some awful media reporting which repeatedly referred to Turner’s impressive swimming times and emphasised how much the case had impacted his life, as if the assault were something unfortunate that had befallen him rather than a choice that he had made.

As a victim of sexual assault, Miller’s anonymity was (in theory, anyway) protected during the trial process, and she was known as Emily Doe. She talks in the book – and also in a really powerful victim impact statement that she wrote for the sentencing hearing and which later went viral on Buzzfeed News – about how it felt to be described in the media as an unconscious intoxicated woman in contrast to Turner, who was described as this All-American swimmer at a top university who stood to lose so much. Reclaiming her identity and naming herself was, she suggests in the book, part of the process of reclaiming her sense of self-worth; of showing that she, too, had a valuable life that was significantly harmed by this sexual assault that Brock Turner had chosen to perpetrate.

Mike Spagat
I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether it is appropriate to memorialise sexual violence victims using the list-of-names approach that is so common for war deaths?

Harriet Gray
That’s an interesting thought. Along with Chanel Miller, who found publicly reclaiming her name to be an empowering experience, there are other examples in which victim-survivors of sexual violence have publicly named themselves and claimed their stories as a form of activism. So, we could think about Kim Hak-sun, the comfort system survivor and activist who I mentioned a moment ago.

We could also think about the women who named themselves as victims of Bill Cosby; there was that really powerful New York Magazine cover in 2015 which featured photographs of 35 women who had accused Cosby of sexual assault. Similarly, the leading activist behind the Survivors’ Memorial in Minneapolis, a really powerful advocate called Sarah Super, has also spoken out repeatedly about her experience of rape and led others to break their silences, too. There is a lot to be said for survivors publicly naming themselves and naming their experiences as a way to break down the stigma which sadly still hangs around sexual violence victims in many cases.

However, I think there are also some significant issues which mean that the list-of-names approach is unlikely to become the norm for this kind of memorialisation. Sadly – infuriatingly – there is still a stigma around being the victim of sexual violence. Given this, many victim-survivors do not choose to publicly share their experiences, and indeed not being publicly identified as a victim-survivor is important in their ability to move on and rebuild their lives. In some ways, we might think that one of the potential drawbacks of the #MeToo movement has been a certain amount of pressure on survivors to publicly tell their stories, almost like it’s a public duty, and it’s important to also respect victim-survivors’ choice not to do this.

In addition, in some memorials, a listing of names might run counter to the purpose of the space. I mentioned Sarah Super, who has spoken publicly about her experience of rape and who led on the Survivors’ Memorial in Minneapolis. While Super’s story comes up if you google the memorial, the memorial itself is not about Super’s story and does not mention her name. The Survivors’ Memorial is designed as a space in which any survivor who visits can recognise themselves, can identify themselves as part of this community of survivors, and can feel validated and emotionally safe. It’s possible that a list of names appraoch might undermine this aim, becuase it would exclude those who are not listed.

In addition, there would also be also significant practical difficulties in trying to get a list of names of victim-survivors of sexual violence. Some of these probably overlap with practical difficulties that also exist for the list-of-names approach for war deaths, but others might be more specific to sexual violence. Firstly, some victims will have been killed in the process of or after the sexual assault, and the sexual violence element of that death might not always be known about. Second, some victims of sexual violence might not recognise themselves in that term, at least in the immediate aftermath of the violence taking place – I have conducted interviews with victim-survivors of multiple differnet forms of sexual violence who, at some point or another, did not think that term applied to them, for various reasons. Sometimes this has been because they are men and they think that only women can be raped; in some other instances it has been because they were raped by an intimate partner; or because they were raped with an object and not a penis, and so on. So, this would make it difficult to get an exhaustive list. And this is in addition to the cases where victim-survivors don’t want to identify as such because of the stigma. Perhaps there is a question of whether a partial list of names – one that systematically excluded certain types of sexual violence and so skews what we think sexual violence is, or that made the problem look smaller than it was – might in fact be counter-productive.

Mike Spagat
It’s often the relatives or the friends of people who have been killed in wars who push for a listing of names. Frequently, they want this recognition. But I think much of the of what you just said would apply there, as well ñ loved ones might not wish to see victims of sexual violence named.

Harriet Gray
Sure, I think that this might often be the case. Thinking about the loved ones of victim-survivors, it is also important to recognise that the stigma of rape does not only stick to its direct victims. In conflict settings, in particular, there are often significant numbers of children who are born as a result of rapes perpetrated by armed men. These children often live with stigma because they are understood to be the children of the enemy, even though this is of course through no fault of their own. So, publicly and permanently naming victims of sexual violence potentially exposes not only them but also their children to lifelong stigmatisation.

Mike Spagat
Would you like to share with us your views on the role of female anger in addressing the sexual violence issue?

Harriet Gray
Yes, so that’s an interesting question. If you’d have asked me at the beginning of this project, I think I would probably have had a different answer from the one I have now. So when I started this project I think I was specifically looking for women’s anger. During the height of the #MeToo movement, there was a lot of discussion about women’s anger, which has so often been repressed, belittled, and disallowed, as an important political force that we need to tap into in order to transform rape culture. That is, women haven’t been allowed to be publicly angry, and there is a long history of women being punished for any anger that they dare to show in public – branded as ‘hysterical’ and not taken seriously (and this is, of course, doubly magnified for many women of colour).

During the #MeToo movement there have been attempts to rebrand women’s anger as a powerful force for change that needs, now, to be released, listened to, and channelled into protest that demands real change. Alongside this, I had heeded the warnings of some scholars of memorialisation (I’m thinking most immediately of Jenny Edkins’ work) who explore how some memorials, in particular war memorials (not all of them, of course), can serve to parcel off grief and hold it outside of society, thus diminishing the threat it might otherwise present to the maintenance of the status quo – by providing a space to heal from grief only outside of the space of politics. So, I think that to a certain extent in looking at these monuments I was looking for spaces for anger – spaces in which women’s anger about sexual violence could be mobilised in the pursuit of social change. I am still looking for this, but I think that in listening to the activists involved in these projects I have perhaps broadened the ways in which I am thinking about the political demands that these memorials can make. So, the Survivors’ Memorial, for example, is all about healing, as I mentioned, but not healing as a private, depoliticising act; rather, it is about insisting on the importance of a survivor’s reconnection with community; that the community has to change in order to provide the resources that a survivor requires to heal. It is about ending rape culture by creating a new culture of healing for survivors of rape.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no space for anger in these memorials; indeed, we might think about the Statue of Peace as symbolising some level of anger. This is one of the first memorials to the so-called comfort women, and it’s particularly interesting in that it has gone viral – there are many copies of it in South Korea, and also others in the USA, Canada, Germany, and Australia, among other places. The original was installed outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2011. I wouldn’t say at all that this statue is simply about anger – it is really not – but I think there is some degree of quiet, seething anger there. The original statue sits across from the Japanese embassy and stares, without blinking (obviously, she’s a statue), her fists clenched in determination, demanding justice. I would say that she has a kind of quiet, dignified, and righteous anger.

So, there are a whole range of emotional motivations for these memorials, and of emotions that are communicated and evoked by them. At this stage in the research I am very much still thinking all this through, but I think I am interested in and compelled by the politics of a greater range of emotions than I perhaps expected at the outset.

Mike Spagat
You have written about a continuum that extends from sexual violence within the context of war, and domestic sexual violence. Would you like to share your views here?

Harriet Gray
Sure, so the continuum of violence is a concept that comes from Liz Kelly, who was writing in the 1980s. Kelly basically made the argument that we can’t make sense of any of the specific forms of sexual violence that tend to be considered newsworthy – say, for example, stranger rape – without making sense of how this form of violence is interlinked with other, less attention-grabbing forms of gender-based violence, such as sexual harassment at work or domestic violence. Not only do multiple forms of these violences shade into one another, but Kelly also argued that they are all underpinned by the same gendered structures and logics. Others have taken Kelly’s insights up think about how the violences of ‘war’ shade into the violences of ‘peace,’ and indeed to question the assumption that there is always an easy line to be drawn between the two. Thinking more specifically about conflict spaces, scholars have problematised some of the assumptions embedded in the influential framework which approaches rape as a weapon of war, basically arguing that there is a danger that when we frame rape as a weapon in this way we lose sight of its connection to other forms of gender-based violence. So, if we approach rape as a weapon like any other, it’s difficult to see how it is connected to forms of sexual violence that are taking place not just between enemies but within communities, within military units, within families, and so on, as well as in pre- and post-conflict times. While there are important differences between these forms of violence, they are also all interconnected with one another and underpinned by the same logics and structures. All of the comfort women memorials I have been looking at are striving to make this clear by highlighting connections between the comfort system and contemporary forms of human trafficking.

I think that drawing attention to the connections between different forms of sexual violence, whether it is within one warzone, across war and peace, or between different warzones, is really quite important in memorials remembering conflict-related sexual violence, in particular. This is because of the ease with which narratives of sexual violence seem to get absorbed into nationalist rhetoric. This itself isn’t limited to warzones – I’m thinking of Nigel Farage suddenly developing a deep concern with sexual violence when it seemed like a useful tool to use to argue against immigration by a particular group, while clearly having no interest in sexual violence more broadly. This is something that we see time and time again, where sexual violence is absorbed into pre-existing nationalist rhetoric and stripped of its broader gendered context. Making the links between different forms of sexual violence clear in memorials is, I think, a useful and powerful move to try to push back against this kind of co-optation of concern about sexual violence for nationalist ends.

Mike Spagat
Thank you so much for such a wonderful and insightful interview. I’ve really learned a lot. I wish you the best of luck on your project which is, obviously, off to such a great start.

Harriet Gray’s research is supported by the Economics and Social Research Council [grant number ES/V003321/1].