‘Sexual Violence: Laws, Communities, Interventions’, an interdisciplinary conference hosted by SHaME and the École Française d’Athènes, Athens, 18 October 2019

On Friday 18 October 2019, the SHaME project co-hosted an interdisciplinary conference on sexual violence with the École Française d’Athènes in Athens. In this post, the full programme of this one-day conference is summarised alongside audio recordings of individual speakers.

On Friday 18 October 2019, the SHaME project was delighted to co-host an interdisciplinary conference with the École Française d’Athènes in Athens. The conference aimed to better understand the intersections of sexual violence, law, and medicine in Greece, Britain, and France, and welcomed speakers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including history, psychiatry, and anthropology.

Image of open book lot. Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Pioneering feminist scholar Professor Efi Avdela, of the University of Crete, opened proceedings with some reflections on the current academic landscape on the topic of sexual violence. Efi pointed in particular to the methodological challenges of studying sexual violence given the scarcity of source material, particularly when researching the past. While judicial sources offer an important insight into how sexual violence has been classified differently at different points in time, less has been written on everyday experiences of sexual violence, or the role of medical professionals in framing popular and legal understandings of this.

Efi Avdela: Introduction


Professor Joanna Bourke, PI of the SHaME project, reiterated Efi’s comments, emphasising the urgency of critical scholarship in the field of sexual violence in our current socio-political context. Academic discussions of sexual violence can support activism in the present day, and the subject of this conference was particularly topical in the Greek context, given changes to article 336 of the Greek penal code, which now recognises rape as any sexual act without consent, in accordance with the Council of Europe’s 2011 Istanbul Convention.

Joanna Bourke: Introduction


The first panel of the day explored sexual violence from various perspectives within the Greek context. Dr Achilleas Fotakis of the University of Athens kick-started the panel with his paper on the “Legal and Historical Meanings of Rape and Sexual Assault: Greek Law in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”. Achilleas’ presentation traced the legal meanings of rape and sexual assault in Greek Law from 1832 to the 1960s, emphasising in particular the socio-historical relativity of the law, and how conceptions of women, virginity, and sexuality both influenced and were instantiated by Greek Law during this period.

Achilleas Fotakis: Legal and Historical Meanings of Rape and Sexual Assault: Greek Law in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries


Next, historian Dr Dimitra Vassiliadou from the University of Crete presented her work on sexual violence court cases in the Aegean Islands during the interwar period. Dimitra explored the strategies used by both perpetrators and victims to make the justice system fit their needs. In doing so, she offered a nuanced perspective on the classic rape myth that ‘women lie’, analysing why women and their families might report consensual relationships to the authorities. Dimitra pointed in particular to the dominant sexual culture of her subject communities, where pre-marital sexual relations were not uncommon, especially during engagement periods. Yet young women who engaged in sexualised relationships with men they believed would soon be their husbands were vulnerable to the eventuality that their partners would renege on their promises. Under such circumstances, women had little recourse but to follow the widely-accepted cultural script of sexual violence under coercion in an attempt to pressure their corruptors into legitimising their relationship, or to restore the woman’s reputation in the eyes of community.

Dimitra Vassiliadou: Sexual Violence, Morality and Legal Practice in Interwar Greece


Historian Dr Tasos Kostopoulos, from the Unversity of the Aegean, continued the discussion of the Greek context through his research on sexual violence during the Greek Wars between 1897-1949. Like Efi, Tasos pointed to the methodological challenges of studying the history of rape, particularly when analysing depictions of sexual violence in autobiographical material. In diaries and memoirs of war, class played an important part in shaping perpetrator narratives of sexual violence, with officers tending to be more reserved in their comments than the rank and file. More broadly, the Greek context presents particular challenges for the study of war rape given dominant historical narratives of collective martyrdom at the hands of foreign invaders. The persistence of such discourses in Greek national historiography has relegated war rape to a footnote within broader narratives of Greek heroism.

Tasos Kostopoulos: A Rapists’ Testing Ground? Studying Sexual Violence During the Greek Wars, 1897-1949


The second panel explored the UK context, particularly from the perspective of British institutional responses to cases of sexual violence. SHaME postdoctoral researcher, Dr Ruth Beecher, explored the ways in which hospital based paediatricians and psychiatrists emerged as “experts” on child sexual abuse in 1980s; their influence in awareness-raising among community health professionals in their role as “first responders” to children;  and the extent to which events in Cleveland in 1987 threatened the nascent awareness of the child abuse phenomena in the UK.

Ruth Beecher: ‘Eyes and Ears Alert’: Children, Sexual Harm and the Role of the Community Health Practitioner


Dr Louise Hide, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at Birkbeck, then offered audience members a thoughtful discussion of her research on sexuality in British psychiatric hospitals from the 1960s to the 1980s. In particular, Louise discussed the decision in the 1950s and 1960s to unlock the doors between psychiatric wards, allowing male and female patients to mix unchaperoned for the first time. Louise noted the lack of intervention by medical staff to protect vulnerable women from sexual abuse, and the emphasis on the perceived benefits to male patients of such measures — notably a decline in homosexual activity — rather than the safety of their female counterparts. Eventually the consequences of this policy would begin to dawn on medical staff during the 1970s, by which point it was too late, particularly in economic terms, to revert back to same-sex wards.

Louise Hide: Open Doors, Closed Minds? Sex and Sexuality in Psychiatric Hospitals, 1960s to 1980s


The final panel of the conference explored the issue of trauma, particularly from the perspective of psychiatrists and health workers working with victims of sexual violence in the present day. SHaME PhD student, Adeline Moussion, presented her paper entitled “Male violence, traumatised femininities? Language of trauma meets language of injustice in a medical centre for women victims of violence in the Île-de-France“. This paper addressed how psychologists combine a clinical and political understanding of psychotrauma and how they advocate for survivor-patients’ protection rights. Psychiatrist Dr Panagiotis Kostaras discussed the revictimisation of people subjected to sexual violence. In his paper, Panagiotis explored psychiatric understandings of victims and perpetrators, drawing on both psychoanalytic theory and his own clinical experience.

Panagiotis Kostaras: Revictimization and the Paradox of Repeating the Trauma


The event was well-attended and facilitated thought-provoking interdisciplinary discussions between scholars based in Greece and the UK. Attendees commented on the ‘very interesting and pluridisciplinary’ nature of the conference, ‘uniting historians, psychiatrists, anthropologists’. The SHaME project looks forward to fostering further international collaborations, especially through its upcoming conference ‘Sexual Violence, Medicine, and Psychiatry’ at the University of Newcastle (Australia) on 16-17 April 2020.