Nena Močnik, PhD

University of Ljubljana

“U divojke među nogan janje, a u
mene nožina za klanje1”: The
Epistemological Evolution of
‘Imagining the Sexualities’
through Violence in Balkans2





Case study 1


Very often the argument for the massive use of rape as a weapon during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990s is based on Balkans’ assumingly violent sexual character of the society, patriarchally organized and ruled, what throughout the history visibly marked the roles of both, women and men, and somehow implied their positions as ‘victims’ for the first and/or ‘perpetrators’ for the second during the combat. Historiography of ‘ethnosexualities’3 and the constant presence of violence as one of its significant components are very illustrative in these terms. With analyzing the past production of the knowledge in the field, we came to understanding of sexualities that are being under investigated beyond the representations that cover its ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’ characteristics. In this text, therefore, I suggest reading those ethnosexualities in terms of Todorova’s ‘balkanism’ paradigm: very same ideas as used and critically positioned in her book ‘Imagining Balkans’ (1997) can be applied specifically to the development of the idea of ‘Balkan sexuality’: throughout the history, we can read on primitivism and roughness, usually with no consensual agreement, rather some sadistic practices, but all governed and directed by the system of patriarchy. Most of the early sources, including the rich ethnographical contribution of the travel literature from British, German and American explorers (see in: Bracewell and Drace-Francis, 2009) introduces the sexuality along to other ‘balkanistic’ images as “notoriously ill-defined” (Bracewelle 2009, 1) “savage Europe” and ”land of discord” (Bracewelle, ibid).

Being interested in the narratives and representations of sexuality in the context of war-rapes that happened with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and during the war in 90s, I claim that those historically determined ethnosexualites offered a strong base for the ‘natural’ continuation of further representations of sexualities and also sexual and gender relationships understood only or primarily through rapes and massive sexual violence against women. Not only in the Balkans, but on a global level, research into sexuality has presented several methodological and epistemological obstacles, not only because there is no concrete and reliable approach in measuring sexuality, but also because sex lives are a private matter in most cultures, so researching it can result in rejection, observed flirtation, or other emotional responses from the research participants (Moore 2002). Since the beginning of the original research into sexuality in the late 50s in the USA4 (see for instance: Kinsey, Pomeroy & Martin 1948), the findings have been based on the assumption that the respondents can and will accurately indicate their attitudes, understandings, and experiences (see for more: Tourangeau, Rips and Rasinski 2000); however, their reporting depends on memory, self-imagination, and the influence of socialization processes around sexuality (Sudman, Bradburn and Schwartz 1996). Keeping this in mind, we have to approach to the historiography of sexuality and the present day narratives with the awareness that only certain sexual behaviors are recorded; perhaps those most culturally acceptable or desired; there is rare evidence on what could we call ‘alternative sexuality’, namely every other practice but heterosexual and reproduction-oriented. Any gay and lesbian experiences, polyamory or even the phenomena of sworn virgins, just to mention the few, were almost completely overlooked and/or denied. Deeply rooted cultural taboos, shunning, silencing and (individual) denial all helped to prevent these alternative practices to be visible, accepted, and hence to be recorded in history. Not investigating them actually helped with their marginalization further and proving them inexistent.

On the other hand, violence in the context of sex seems omnipresent and attracting many. With the following text, using the historiography as the main research method, I want to provide theory-grounded historical evidence to show the continuous reproduction of this specific narrative that successfully formed what I later call ‘balkanism’ of sexual behavior in the Balkans. Those ideas were, furthermore, used and reproduced by several authors while trying to understand, explain and ground their arguments of war-rapes incidents that happened with dissolution of Tito’s Yugoslavia and the civil war.

Time-wise, collected sources and my analysis go back to Ottoman and Byzantine Empire and geographically, I tried to narrow it down to the region which today is Bosnia-Herzegovina. War rapes that happened there resonated in international community more than any other debate on sexuality in this region and this narrative may very easily overshadow all other interest in researching sexuality after the war, especially beyond the sexual violence and the legacy of the war crimes. This epistemological angle seems interesting to be included as a comparative analysis with the historical sources. By unveiling the tendencies toward the balkanistic discourse in documenting sexual practices through historical perspective, I aim to show the danger of ‘normalizing’ rapes and the ascribed essentialism of violence in sexuality with the help of this same historic evidence. This narrative practice in many cases supported to perceive and understand the war rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a part of ‘cultural heritage’, some sort of an accepted cultural meme, that is hard to be uprooted. More generally, the violence-emphasizing historical evidence helps to keep the narratives on sexuality further in the frames of balkanistic discourse, what on an educational level and other practices of constructive dealing with the violent past prevents us to see them beyond heteronormative, patriarchally-submissive and violent practices. This, from a discursive level can later successfully translate into the living experiences and therefore slows down any other practices of ‘alternative sexualities’ to be culturally accepted and as well respected.

Origins and Creations of the Balkan(istic) Sexuality

Historically-wise, the region of Balkans is not specific or ‘different’ in how local sexual culture is stigmatized, regulated and mythicized and how its cultural connotations and applications evolved over decades. The vast majority of available past studies refer to patriarchal, male-supremacist ideologies, ruling intimate relationships in the Balkans and by some rare exceptions there is no other than heteronormative discourse in sexuality, that is reproductive sexuality.

Rape as a part of some marriage rituals and as a usual marital praxis in southeastern Europe has been recorded in several studies, and there is substantial data particularly on marital rape and rape practices under the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire (Levin 1989; Buturović and Schick 2007). However, we have to be careful with the very definition of rape since today we operate with the modern concept or understanding of rape as a crime. In the context of the Medieval Slavs, Levin (1989, 212) notes that rape constituted an insult to the family’s honor and was a violation of public morality (Levin 1989, 245) the acceptance of violence by superior (men) against inferior women. “In these societies as in any other that authorizes violence and subordinate women to men, rapes were bound to occur” (Levin 1989, 246). Besides, rape was considered appropriate retaliation when a woman did not “conduct herself in a manner appropriate to her place in the society – if she insulted men, for instance, or got drunk (Levin 1989, 245). Rape was a violent act of social control rather than an expression of certain sexuality; medieval Slavic would live by Christian standards, where the motivation against marital rape was not found in the protection of a woman’s dignity, but was promoted in Slavic belief that lust was improper and should not be encouraged (Levin 1989, 243). Throughout history, a woman’s body has been labeled and stigmatized by her presumed “inclination to tempt men sexually, so she was considered sinful and impure” (Djajić Horvath 2011, 381). Hence, women symbolized the family’s code of honor and shame, as evident in the highly controlled aspects of their chastity, marital virtue, and fertility; and they were primarily valued as wives and mothers (Olujić 1998). There are several recordings of a historical continuum of the public’s perception of rape victims and the loss of their integrity, honor, and shame (for instance Levin 1989, 227). In many cases of rape, death might be preferable (and usually the dishonor of the victims is express by this) (Levin 1989, 227).

Women as possessions and repressive control over women’s sexuality in the rural and pre-modern Balkans are noted by Denich (1974) and Durham (1928). Distrust of female sexuality before marriage is illustrated by the custom of publicly demonstrating the woman’s proof of virginity after the wedding night; however, virgin blood as respected and appreciated clearly opposes to menstrual blood as unclean (Olujić 1998, 36). Several instructions of self-violence, associated with shameful and dishonored behavior of young teenage girls, writes Olujić “demonstrate the extent to which women are expected to keep themselves in control and avoid men's public control over them.” (Olujić 1998, 36). Denich (1974, 254) writes about two components to the control of women’s sexuality: “one practical, the other symbolic” (ibid):

On the practical side the tenuous bond between a woman and her husband’s household would be further undermined by liaisons with other men. However, the more significant dimension of the severity of measures for sexual control over women stems from the symbolic importance of sex in the competitive social environment situation in which agnatic groups exist. The ability of a household’s men to control its women is one of many indicators of its strength; accordingly, evidence of lack of control over women would indicate weakness and possibly reveal the men’s vulnerability to other external challenges (Denich 1974, 254-55)

In all of these societies women not behaving in the properly submissive manner5 (emphasis added) are liable to a beating from their husbands (Denich 1974, 255); the severity of these sanctions express the collective dominance of the agnatic household, rather than simply that of the individual husband over their wife (Denich 1974, 225).

By the end of the First World War the Balkan men were associated with a brutal sexuality, whereas Northern Europeans (...) were represented as being capable of more complex psychological and erotic responses (Bjelić and Cole 2002, 286). The Slav appears to exercise 'natural' violent impulses, which ‘civilized’ soldier resist, sublimate, or displace (Bjelić and Cole 2002, 284). All men, according to Hirschfeld (1941, 321), are potential rapists, but those of ‘advanced’ civilizations mostly fantasize or threat by rape. “Slav is sexualized,” writes Bjelić and Cole (2002, 285) and in so doing, “marks himself as part of an inferior race” (ibid). The Balkans as ‘primitive people’, and thus sexualized, were described in several early ethnographic studies (see in Bjelić and Cole 2002, 280); while the ‘Turks’ or the ‘Orientals’ are associated with sensuality, sexuality, and the feminine, Southern Slavs (usually referring to people affiliated to Orthodox or Catholic Christianity) are associated with primitiveness, roughness, and violence. Hirschfeld (1941, 310) writes about the differences among the ‘perversive’ sexual culture of ‘Turkos’ that leaned toward bodily mutilation, and on the other side among “the South Slavs, where sadistic murders, castrations, and rapes were very frequent.” This division of the two prevailing definitions of ethnosexuality and their historical development has played a major role in the national mythology and symbology used, besides the torture and atrocities in the war in the 90s.6

Jovan Marić, for instance, in his essentialistic book What kind of people are we Serbs? Contribution to the Characterology of the Serbs (1998) outlines the Serbs efficiently and notes that successfulness is due to their assumed sexual performances in which Serbs “are in a good standing” (Marić 1998, 169) with their inherited ‘Slav virility’. With regards to the historically based hatred legacy among the Turks and the South Slavs, and the mythology used for revenge, it is nothing but a great paradox that Marić refers to the Turks as those from whom the Serbs inherited their sexual prowess. However, this ethnicized representation of sexuality and the “genetic source of Serbian virility” (Bjelić and Cole 2002, 291) served as a great ideological fuel in peer supporting for mass rapes committed during the war.

According to The Sexual History of World War, written by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1941, the war in the Balkans has always been an “extension of the ‘erotic process’,” writes (Hirschfeld 1941), whereby suppressed egos produce ‘destructive sadistic powers’ during wartime, the sexual misery of peacetime, the hypocritical morality of the ruling classes, the perverts, the natural impulses, and finally outbursts in aberrant reactions (Hirschfeld 1941). His ‘chronicle’ of wartime perversities and sexual deviations is intended to “mature educated persons only” and includes essays on prostitution, female spies, the “eroticism behind military drills,” “the bestialization of men,” “sadism, rape, and other atrocities.” Hirschfeld links deviant sexual practices within his theory of cultural development and claims that “individual acts of cruelty, often with definite erotic casts” were executed “principally by the more primitive groups” (Hirschfeld 1941, 308). He bases his conclusion on both pejorative and balkanistic perspectives, where “these people /Balkan Slavs/ have remained behind the rest of Europe in civilization and have retained their primitive traditions (Hirschfeld 1941, ibid).” It clearly supports Alexandra Djajić Horvath’s argument, claiming that “the progress of a nation is ‘measured’ by the treatment of its women” (2011, 369).

Hirschfeld believes in prostitution as a solving source in the prevention of wartime rape; in his vision, wartime rape happens because of alcohol, “protracted sexual abstinence” and the image of war as a “sexual stimulant,” but its occurrence could be cut down by assuring that there are prostitutes and brothels for the warriors: “The field- and halting station brothels, no matter how disgusting, diminished the number of cases of rape during the war (Hirschfeld 1941, 321).” Assuming that one type of violence would be solved by another one, expresses his arrogant and sexist, if not misogynistic, image of women's sexuality:

For the women, the brutality and aggressiveness of the man is, to a certain degree, accompanied by pleasure. The reasons for this are obvious. The conquest of woman and the act of copulation, presupposes, on the men's part, a definite joy in attacking. (...) The normal woman desires to be conquered by the man, to be forced; and only one step separates her from the female masochist who wishes, not only to be overwhelmed, but also to be raped and brutalized (Hirschfeld 1941, ibid).

Another such controversial depiction of the ‘cruel’ and ‘primitive’ Balkans sexuality appeared in a political and pornographic pamphlet entitled Balkangreuel, published in 1909.7 Balkangreuel contained twelve lithographs with explicit depictions of sex, and not just any sex: the main narrative leads to the brutal rape of Christian virgins by Turkish invaders, conquering the Balkan territories. As an introduction to these paintings, a five-page long text describes the Balkans as a historically known place of wild, ethnically mixed, and brutally violent people (Schick 2007, 292). Particularly one of the paintings (Figure no. 2) contains a scene of four Turkish soldiers raping four young maidens inside an Orthodox church, as the priest is forced to watch.8 There are others showing violent sexual acts, usually in the household. While the women are naked, the men are dressed in traditional Turkish clothes. Some pictures depict local men killed on the floor, while the women are being raped by the Turkish man (Figure no.1). Again, according to the testimonies, the tales of the Balkan maidens and the Turkish ravishers played an important role during the conflicts in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.



Figure 1 & 2

Source: Sieben, 2014.




Notions on the sexuality behaviors in the Balkans can be found in some popular culture, music, songs, movies, stories, and in some ethnographical studies (see Knežević 1996). Knežević outlines a Croatian form of epic singing called Ganga that usually communicates messages of love, betrayal, desire, and the sex appeal of young women and men. In its symbolism, a ‘plowing’ as intercourse, a cluster of wool as the vagina and a rifle as the penis, can be found (Olujić 1998, 34). In the post-war rapes/sexual abuse oriented narrations, the rifle as a penis or the penis as weapon in general has become one of the leading motifs (see in Stiglamayer, 1994). Ganga songs portray the rural communities’ understandings of womanhood, the sexuality of women, and virility:

Men portray themselves as wanting sex and portray women as withholding it; men depict women as hypocritical objects and depict themselves as powerful subjects. (…) In ganga, men express their view of women as sexual objects through symbolic language (Olujić 1998, 35)

Although, there are rare records of women expressing their sexuality through ganga songs, Brandes (1980) notes that some forms of folklore can be found that hold the idea of women as secretly and ardently sexual. The tight control over women's sexuality all over southeastern European cultures is evident through honor/shame binaries, where women represent the code of honor of the family and/or the code of shame:

For women, honor and shame are the basis of morality and underpin the three-tiered hierarchy of statuses: husband, family, and village. In the former Yugoslavia, these traditional values regarding sexual behavior, which condoned rape through honor/shame constraints, took precedence over economic transformations, state policy commitments under communism, and male migration (Olujić 1998, 34).

Olujić describes another rather violent practice of men, expressing their right over women sexuality. After World War II, ‘chasing’ (orig. gonjanje) has become a common practice in rural spaces around Balkans. In this ‘game’

male teenagers would run after a woman, knock her down, jump on top of her, pin her onto the floor, roll her over, and then pinch her breasts or grab at her genital region. In public, this physical assault aroused the cheers of men and motivated women to yell out and pull the man off the victim. Since the attacked women usually rejected the men's advances, the play rape became a way for a man to publicly save face and publicly humiliate a woman for rejecting him. In short, it was a game of status in which men had to be on top (Olujić 1998, 9).

Her informants who were all male but from different generations, share the stories of ‘competitive games’ and ‘measuring the sexuality.’ Both employ various forms of public displays of virility or sexual prowess. As an example, she mentions public boastings about men’s sexual affairs, the furthest ejaculations and the longest penis competitions (Olujić 1998, 36). Secretly seeing a naked woman, her bare breasts and pubic hair in particular was one of the most important desires to be accomplished among young and unmarried men (ibid). Women’s past sexual experiences were also a subject of measurement: according to Olujić’s informants, men were able to recognize a virgin without sleeping with a woman:

One way to ‘measure’ her chastity was to assess her breasts: If she had soft breasts (meka sisa), in other words, if they were ‘hanging’, it meant that someone else already perforated her (probusit). Another way to decipher whether or not a woman was a virgin was to secretly listen to the sound of her flowing urine. If she ‘pissed wide’ (siroko pisa), it meant that she had been pierced (probijena) (Olujić 1998, 36).

In Tito’s Yugoslavia women were still valued primarily as mothers and workers (Denich 1974; Stein Erlich 1966); despite the liberalization of the country, a generalized patriarchal culture continued to subordinate women who were also under the Tito’s rule (Drakulić 2010). Women became ‘equal’ as a work force, but that did not change their social determination toward domestic responsibilities and child care. Cockburn (1998) writes about increased domestic violence as men’s patriarchal authority was challenged by women’s empowerment that had come along with the socialism order. However, Yugoslavia maintained a general openness to the outside world, and “women were free to travel and read literature from all over the world, and a small minority of Yugoslav women joined the new wave of feminists that surged across Western Europe in 1970” (Snyder, Gabbard, May and Zulcic 2006, 188). Biljana Kašić, a Croatian feminist, has wrapped the magazine analysis of ‘Yugoslav sexualities’ in expressing her doubts on the potential of transforming cultural and psychological behavior into cultural innovations or fresh approaches to sexuality (Kašić 2005, 95). According to the sexual representations in magazines, Yugoslav sexuality was about “sensationalism, an oversimplified approach to sexuality, and recipes for sexual life presented in extremely bizarre ways (Kašić, ibid).” Kašić continues: “In those magazines the very package of sexuality was quite predictable (...) heterosexual-oriented magazines offer a digest prototype of sexual life with a set of imposed male sexual fantasies for consumers, a sort of exoticism of the 'taboos around sexualities' with images of the sexy woman as an object” (Kašić 2005, 96).

The presence of pornography and female nudity in Start Magazine,9 one of the most iconographic soft porn magazines available on the Yugoslav market, has become attacked by Catherine MacKinnon in her accusation that pornography influenced the mass rapes during the war in Bosnia. This single magazine was enough of an argument for MacKinnon to frame Balkan sexuality in pure violence, obviously more savage, primitive, and tribal than ‘Western sexuality’. “When pornography is this normal,” she writes taking into consideration the case of Start Magazine, “a whole population of men is primed to dehumanize women and to enjoy inflicting assault sexually (MacKinnon 1994, 77).10 Paradoxically enough, not only was Start Magazine highly under the influence of Western pornography, but Bjelić and Cole (2002, 292) write how even after the war, the majority of late-night pornography is of a non-Balkan origin; instead the actors speak French, German, and English. “Pictures of bare-breasted women in the daily papers,” they continue, “are often reprints of non-Yugoslav actresses and models.”

Videos, modeled on those of MTV, feature Yugoslav women singing, for example, a Shania Twayne song, dressing like Shania Twayne, and even imitating her body movements. One could, of course, explain such borrowings as an effort of ‘globalization’, but our point is more specific: Whether we like it or not, pornography is an effect of modern forms of governmentality, not its barbaric other (Bjelic and Cole 2002, 292).

Apart from rare ethnographic research on sexuality in the Balkans, the literature overview shows obvious gaps in the knowledge on the topic. This fact became disturbing when post-war resources started to generate ethno-sexual ideologies based on balkanistic discourse, provided by historical sources and indicating the affirmed ‘backwardness and brutality of the Balkans’ (Helms 2013). Helms (2008) writes how after the war, images of violent and backward, but at the same time drunk and fun-loving male peasants, have been replaced by images of victimized women suffering from male brutality throughout war and post-war times. According to Helms (2008, 118) these new balkanisms “set aside images of exotic and erotic harems” and an “emphasis on violence, barbarity, and victimhood” have become an indicator of the backwardness and brutality of “the Balkans.” Furthermore, in his chapter about the ‘causes of brutality’ in the Bosnian war, Paul Parin writes about his ‘hypothesis’:

My experiences with typical child-raising practices in rural families in different areas of Yugoslavia have led me to a hypothesis. In these thoroughly patriarchal families there is much tenderness and concern for children but also strictness and severe corporal punishment. Neither mother nor father seems to ‘know’ that one can or should mute the emotions through reassurance, distracting, or constant monitoring of emotional expression. To this I attribute the open, direct expression of positive feelings and sexual desires of men and women from many areas of the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps the same thing is true of aggressive deeds: they happen spontaneously, are uninhibited, and are often sustained by sadistic pleasure (Parin 1994, 47).

According to Parin, sexual violence is primordial to the Balkan’s cultural socialization and since “less structure fanatical gangs are more characteristic of a dissolving societal structure than of the Balkans” (ibid). One can agree that following the symbolic interactionism social rules are learned and reinforced through everyday interaction, and the socialization as outlined by Parin is one of them. Hereby, sexuality is controlled, dichotomized (gendered), and as such socially constructed (Foucault 1978); everything we regard as female or male sexuality, sexual interaction, sexual violence, and rape is culturally imposed. But Parin gets closer to essentializing a brutal sexual ethnic identity that was not an isolated case, especially in post-war literature where attributing rapists' and perpetrators' characteristics became very visible and uncritically accepted by many authors and help to visibly construct the images of ‘balkanistic’ sexuality.

From Eternal Victims to Sexual Predators:
The Narrative of ethnosexualities during the war in 1990s

During the war in 90s the power relationship between women and men become even more important, especially in terms of ethnic division; what we follow in the narratives from this period is not anymore ‘a man’ that is violent against ‘woman’. This patriarchally grounded division is given another, very important dimension. We no longer read only about ‘vulnerable’, ‘silenced’, ‘suppressed’ female sexuality as such. Muslim women, reportedly the biggest group affected by systematic rapes (see in: Helsinki Watch 1993, UNFPA 2010) collective and imagined community, became as an archetype of this sexuality in Balkans.

On the other hand, the Serb men and their ‘virility’ as praised by Marić (1998), became the ultimate carriers of symbols of violent control over women’s sexuality during the war – performed mostly, again, through violent sexual practices, such as rape and mutilation. Rape, accompanied by systematic impregnation was by evidence (Helsinki Watch 1993, Allen 1996) coming mostly from the Serbian military forces, where Muslim women (passive antagonists) became subjected to Serb men (active protagonist) in the process of “Serbianizing” of the child (Slapšak 2000, 55). Similar ethnosexual narrative can be find elsewhere: Salzman, for instance, titled one of his chapters, “The Serbian Usurpation of the female body” (1998).

The intense Western presence in the war zone (journalists, humanitarians, scholars) contributed to the Westernized framework of the rapes in relation to sexuality. Susan Brownmiller and Catherine MacKinnon, with their background in theories of rape related to Western-influenced feministic thought, became two of the most important and loud voices on the topic. Their narratives, recited and referred to in numerous later (feminists’) texts, have reduced men's and women's sexuality in Balkans to the images of 19th century ‘travelers’ we unveiled earlier in this texts. Binary of Muslim female victims and Serbian male perpetrators have been then successfully distributed and established in science discourse on rapes in Bosnia, and most of the work kept the relation with the general connections to understanding rapes as the extension of patriarchy by Western feminists (Brownmiller 1994; Seifert 1994; Stiglmayer 1994; Allen 1996; Skjelsbaek 2006). The most evidence was based on reporting rape as war weapon, where the enemy’s women’s bodies, but in general, a violation of women’s sexuality and using it in political terms thus humiliates and demoralizes the entire cultural identity of the assaulted group. In this context, sexuality of the war terminology did almost not exist.

Muslim women, therefore, presented a primal target of rapes and forced impregnations, and soon became anonymous representatives of the victim collective identity (Helms 2013). By the progress of the field reports and evidence, the literature on war rapes started to romanticize Muslim women and particularly their assumed ‘purity’: “Woman's purity in Islam and the Muslim patriarchal culture is not only held sacred, but is seen as an essential element to insure the stability of the society and the culture” (Salzman 1998, 367). In one of the most recognized editions of these times, titled Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina and edited by Alexandra Stiglmayer, we can find a text by Azra Zalihić-Kaurin. A Muslim Woman (Azra Zalihić Kaurin (1994, 170-173). It describes characteristics of Yugoslav Muslim women and how it was “unthinkable to see a Muslim woman in a café or at a private party.” She continues:

(…) the Muslim woman had to remain intact and go to her marriage with a pure soul. Only to her husband could she show her body – an extramarital affair was inconceivable (…). It was also a disgrace if a Muslim woman became pregnant and the father of her child would not marry her: there was no greater shame. Young Muslim women today may wear miniskirts and have boyfriends, they may study and work, but they still respect the commandment of virginity. Marriage is as self-evident as is a mother’s responsibility for the education of her children (Zalihić Kaurin 1994, 172).

This ethnicization of rapes has been later criticized by Žarkov (2007) and Helms (2013), in terms of a very limited image of victimhood, embracing primarily rural Bosnian Muslim women. “In the majority of Western feminist studies,” claimed Nikolić-Ristanović (2000, 157), “it is evident that when they say ‘Bosnian women’, they mean Muslim women only.”

[Rape ]…is about the almost mythical ‘Muslim’ woman, not only because victims were not just Muslims, but also because this reinforces the fundamentalist construction of a new woman in some circles in Bosnia, destroys the possibility of the existence of atheist women, and confirms a nationally-genetically determined ‘weakness' - not only women's weakness. Here we are definitely dealing with crypto-racism (Slapšak 2000, 54).

Žarkov problematizes this ‘islamization of rape vicitims’ with questioning the importance of women’s background in the context of their suffering and traumatic experiencing of rape and sexual abuse. She asks: “Why would one assume that rapes would be less traumatic for non-religious or urban women? Or for Serb or Croat or other women who also came from conservative communities in which female chastity, marriage, and motherhood are prized?” (2007, 146).Those narratives used sexuality by dividing women as good Muslims and the rest, and additionally honored traditional/rural over modernized/urban life. Purposefully or not, we can observe the tendencies of further representation of Balkans in the light of backwardness and primitivism. In one woman's testimony (in Vranić 1996, 125), we can read, how women who have spoken out on rapes are for sure “city women”, because everybody else would be ashamed to talk about these vulgarities (Vranić 1996, 125). “Not all rape survivors,” writes Helms (2013, 66), “came from conservative rural communities, nor were they all religious, or religious in the same way.” Not only those narrative overshadowed any other sexual practices11 but war rapes and sexual violence; furthermore they were enforcing the female victimhood – but in this context also of very limited and ethnically/religiously determined group of women. The post-war response of Islamic religious bodies toward women victims of rapes was protective and patronizing, too. Women were given the rank of shahid, an honor given to Muslims who die defending their faith, country, or family. “A woman who is raped is not guilty, but is like a shahid, the hero who is killed in Allah's path. It means she is becoming a heroine. And the child who is born out of rape is a Muslim and will be considered as a member of the Muslim community” (PBS Women, War and Peace 2011).

On the other hand, the vulgarity, bestiality of (Serb) men, perpetrators, have been set up by Catherine MacKinnon’s striking contribution already in early 90s with her thesis on the connection between pornography and the rapes, as she put the Balkan males’ sexuality (positioned in how they treat ‘their’ women) on the global map based on biological and essentialist assumptions as well as numbers of simplifications.

Women have never been regarded as the equals of men in Balkan society (...) /Women/ are perceived as "lower" than men, and are expected to act meek and obedient in their homes and workplaces. This subtle and ingrained disrespect of women paved the way for the mass rapes that occurred in Bosnia. A man’s status in Balkan society therefore became his excuse and weapon for sexual violence (in Gilboa 2001).

Although, Catherine MacKinnon's study (1994) of the pornographic tapes made during the war that we mentioned earlier, lack clear evidence and a critical approach, she kept the role of important contributor, being cited in numerous further works (see for instance: Rejali 1996; Agathangelou 2000; Skjelsbaek 2012).12 This and similar accusations place the violent and abusive sexual scripts13 again as infinite and primordial to one community, but as Lewis has argued, we have to keep in mind that they are “not simply downloaded verbatim into individuals. Individuals select the cultural scenarios that are most consistent with their own ideas and experience of sexuality and incorporate them into their own menu of sexual acts” (Lewis 2006, 256). Another similar case is the novelistic description of the trial of Dragomir Kunarac, Radomir Kovač and Zoran Vuković,14 who all pleaded not guilty, by Slavenka Drakulić. Witnessing the trial, she commented on how it must have seemed surreal for the men because:

After all, even if they were a bit rough with the girls, they did not kill them, and they did not order them to be killed (...). (...) the crimes committed by the trio from Foča do not even look like crimes, at least not in their eyes. In their part of the world, men often treat their own wives as nothing more than cattle. The man is the boss, the woman should shut up and obey him, and it is not unusual for a man to beat up his wife in order to remind her of that. Rape? What is rape anyway? To take a woman when you want and wherever you want? It is a man's right, no question, as far as his wife is concerned (Drakulić 2005, 53).

As we have seen through the historical analysis of the sexual scripts and the available sources, sexuality in Balkans was portrayed as aggressively manifested, with sexually disempowered women and men, unable to control their animalistic sexual instincts. However, being so deeply rooted into the cultural heritage, not necessarily was sexuality even understood in these terms. Marital rape, as an example of this, has recently become problematized and acknowledged as a form of sexual violence against women but on a community, bottom-up level still accepted as a conventional sexual practice. It means that placed back in the history – was rape in marriage also defined as violence or just a violent sexual practice? This discrepancy of historical understanding of ‘violent sexuality’ and acceptance of sexuality being violent has been illustrated by Seada Vranić’s Breaking the Wall of Silence interview with the war-rape survivor:

You know what rape is. You are married and you know what men do with women. For years and years, I heard that it, between men and women, sex as it is called in modern times, was the best thing in this world or the world beyond. My whole life I worried about not marrying (…) Unfortunately now, as an old woman of 50, I grew wise (...) If the ‘beast’ hadn’t taken my honor I would forever think wrongly and I would never know the truth. Now I know the truth and I also know that Allah, punishing me with my bad leg, spared me from the worst. God didn’t give me the chance to have a baby but I also did not go through the pain and suffering to conceive. I wish I would have never known the truth and I wish instead that I would have regretted (not having sex) for the rest of my life. My life was not easy, but I was not ashamed. Now I must lower my head and look to the ground (Kadira in Vranić 1996, 130).

Violent imposition of sexual intercourse by a man on a woman has throughout history never been so visibly acknowledged neither problematized as it became with the occurrence of mass sexual violence during the war. Grounded in culturally accepted violence in marriage and traditional rules that, so to say, means that “through marriage, a woman consents to sexual relations with her husband and cannot later refuse him” (Hayden 2008, 28), sexuality and its symbolism seems almost impossible to be thought outside of violence.

To sum up, what has been missing in the “overpowering presence of the victimized female body in feminist studies on war” (Žarkov 2007, 15) is the reopening of the debate on female and male sexuality, and the creation of more diversified public narratives of sexualized violence and sexuality in order to “deconstruct masculinist power in feminine victimization (Heberle 1996, 63). Since 1970, with the release of Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, we seem to agree on the narrative of a naturalized female body that makes rapes possible: they are, prior to the social structures that rape inspires and supports, rapable. Women are raped because they are rapable, and women are rapable because they are women (Brownmiller 1975, 16). By this argument, women are marked as primordially disempowered as “their bodies, coded as a place of empty vulnerability” (Henderson 2013, 242). If we combine this with a long historical heritage where women only live in a so called ‘economical sexuality’, rape occurs not only as unquestionable form of sex but also impossible to be removed from our sexual cultures in any time: past, present and future.


Historical narratives contributed visibly to the knowledge of sexuality that we have today and also how we use them in further thinking. The huge efforts of mostly feminist thought on the legal definition and public recognition of rape, sexual violence and sexual autonomy (of women mostly), have for sure been triggered by the incidents during the war. Looking back to historical predispositions helps to reveal the cultural heritage and grounds that contributed to rapes on such massive scale, but are at the same time on the very edge to offer nothing but the study of sexuality in terms of violence. While such agency was primarily needed for the legal and psychological requirements of the survivors, the produced knowledge on rape does not respond to the necessity of rape prevention in future. For that reason the “deconstructive narrative” (Heberle 1996, 70) should be used in order to expose the naturalized social truths about gender, sexuality, and victimization that are rooted in the event of sexualized violence and rapes, and grounded on the history of (sexual) oppression against women. We have to give the evolution time; violence and aggression embedded in centuries, will not stop overnight due to the massive activism and agency on gender issues after the war.

In studying sexuality in Balkans, complex concepts of gender, sexuality and patriarchy often become a simplistic explanation of all inequalities and violence in general: structural, symbolic, psychological, and physical. Despite the rare sources on research on sexuality in general, the analysed literature shows no variety in sexual lifes, but it is, indeed, very rich in the evidence of intersections between violence and sexuality. The question that remains open is: why? Why the past researchers and ethnographic evidence recorded such limited knowledge? As posed in the beginning, I am wondering, how much other important 'alternative sexualities' were dissmissed because they really were not in existence, or, also quite possibly, because researchers and ethnographers simply did not look for it. I believe that 'evolution of sexuality' does not mean only finally starting to research it; the struggle for alternative practices was perhaps always there, but for this or another reason not taken into account, not recorded. This is the reason why I was trying to bring in the importance of 'colonial gaze' and the balkanistic attitude toward researching sexuality. As in other levels of seeing Balkans as 'the Other', why would the sexuality be an exception? If we read these narratives, be it either before the war, during or after, quite often they can lead the reader to understand the practices of sexuality in a very exclusivistic way, subjected to patriarchalism and aggressive patterns of men's behavior. When the mass rapes in Bosnia happened, the word was shocked. But the academia, besides media, helped to wrap this shock to the exlusivistic language by 'othering' the incidents to start understanding the patriarchy, where sexuality equals violence, unique and peculiar to Balkans.

Women must “recolonize the space taken from them,” says Renee Heberle, and I would paraphrase her, that both, men and women, have to recolonize sexuality that was taken from them. The resistance toward existing rape scripts can start happening by breaking down the narratives that preserve images of women as preexistent victims, women as subjected identities. I suggest that we aim to create the awareness of existence of more heterogeneous, more diverse practices of sexuality that go beyond sexual violence and submissive patriarchal orders. Hence I suggest gender, sexuality, and sexualized violence be seen not as fixed ideologies, but created, “lived ideology” (McCaughey in Henderson 2013, 252), and this way to understand the practices as fluid subject to change and transformation.











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1 Texts of several ‘erotic’ gangas might be found on different web sources. The quoted song appears on two sites and one of them is titled ‘bezobrazna ganga’ and offers the rich collection of erotic gangas. Source: seonicamz/muska-ganga/bezobraznaganga (date of access: 8 May 2016).

2 With 'Balkans' in this text we mostly mean the countries of Former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). However, use of the term Balkans seems in the historical perspective more relevant, since the geographical area has been under different rules and cultural influences throughout the history.

3 By ethnosexual, I refer to Joane Nagel’s theory (2003) about intersection and interaction between ethnicity and sexuality and how they impact each other’s meaning and power-relationship. I am upgrading her understanding with the importance of so called ‘colonial gaze’ or balkanistic discourse that has built the ‘ethnic’ dimension on the construction of ‘the Other’.




4 Alfred Kinsey and his pioneering studies into Sexual Behaviour in Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in Human Female (1953), were officially declared as the foundation to the field of sexology and had visibly encouraged further interest in the field by provoking several controversies and questions.




5 Again, the properly submissive manner is the domain of the cultural construction over years, mostly designed, regulated and ordered by men; social form developed under specific circumstances (ibid).




6 See for more in: Močnik, Nena. 2015. Religious Symbology and Mythology in Sexualized Violence and Rape during the Balkan Conflict in 1992-1995. In Politicization of Religion, The Power of Symbolism, The Case of Former Yugoslavia and its Successor States, ed. Ognjenovic, Gorana and Jasna Jozelic. London: Palgrave MacMilliam.




7 Balkangreuel was allegedly printed by Viennese publishers of erotica C.W.Stern. The portfolio is signed by Archibald Smith who is supposedly the pseudonym for the Gottfried Sieben (Schick 2007, 291).

8 More on sexualized violence during the Turkish occupation of the Balkans is in L. E. Boose (2002) ‘Crossing the River Drina: Bosnian Rape Camps, Turkish Impalement, and Serb Cultural Memory’, Gender and Cultural Memory 28.




9 According to MacKinnon's text the reader gets the impression of Start Magazine as highly primitive, oppressive, and abusive toward women. However, it was the first and only liberal magazine in Yugoslavia with very “Western-oriented and mostly anti-Communist” (Kesić 1994, 11) content; Kesić said (ibid), the appearance of Playboy-type covers and a centerfold section of naked women in sexual postures, it rather responded “to the trend of social liberalization and the decline of the socialist regime;” for more about socialist erotica, and Yugoslav sexual progression also see Žikić, 2009.

10 Consuming pornography has, as every other cultural product, influenced people's sexual knowledge, behavior and understanding, as well as the expectation and perceptions on sexuality (Hald, Malamuth & Yuen 2009). Although, there are records of the negative benefits of using (especially violent) pornography (see for instance: Bouffard 2010; Carr and VanDeusen 2004). Some recent research suggests that “it may be that the effects of pornography are important for some individuals, but not for others, and that they may only be relatively powerful as they interact with some other factors (Malamuth et al. 2000, 19).”




11 Olivera Simić (2012) is one of the rare authors who challenged this narrative and also exposed the moral and ethical obstacles in talking about 'sex for fun' during the war: “War is destructive,” she writes, “but it does not stop lives being lived. The living continues to have ordinary sexual desire (Simić 2012, 135).” In support of her argument, she refers to her field work research about consensual sex and between UN peacekeepers and local women.




12 Vesna Kesić (1994) wrote a response to her work, questioning her use of facts and also the controversial argumentations of impacts of pornography on ‘Yugoslav’ sexuality.

13 Sexual scripts as a “set of behaviors, beliefs, and the meanings attached to them are constructed by individuals and social groups;” these can change over time and across national boundaries (Lewis 2006, 254).

14 Three Bosnian Serb war criminals from the town of Foča in Republika Srpska were the first men in European legal history to be sentenced for outrages upon human dignity, including the mass rape of Bosnian Muslim women as crimes against humanity. On 22 February 2002, at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, they were sentenced to twenty-eight, twenty and twelve years in prison (Drakulić 2005, 46).











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