Sex, power & play at Europe’s largest arms fair

The Thales and Elbit System stands at DSEI 2023
Nico Edwards

Global headlines are once again seized by the outbreak of armed conflict, detailing indescribable suffering and destruction. War, it feels, is everywhere and always. To some, this means business. Many of the facilitators and profiteers of armed conflict globally attended the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) in London, September 2023.

What follows is a personal story, but what it tells us about enduring systems of power and harm goes far beyond my person. That weathered feminist truth that the personal is always also political rings true still. What I experienced in the world of “defence men” – the global war elite – attending DSEI as a white woman, was highly demonstrative of the social, political and economic forces that enable and perpetuate armed violence. The personal behaviours of militarised business masculinities hold clues as to why decisionmakers keep hurtling toward global war at the expense of both people and the planet.

Setting the scene: a playground for phallic force 

Happening in London biannually, DSEI is one of the world’s biggest and most important arms fairs. I went there to research military sectors’ pivot toward environmental sustainability and how to “green” warfare – a key emerging feature especially of European and North American propaganda. The event oozed of hubris. Rob, an American war simulations expert and my main interlocutor, confirmed he’d never seen such a galore of impressive weapons tech exhibitions. Indeed, several arms company reps told me affirmingly: business is booming. Spread across 100,000 sqm. Rob and I were among almost 40,000 participants from all over the world. Including the usual array of repressive, human rights abusing regimes or states involved in active warfare.

You don’t have to be a polemicist to catch how DSEI is but one big bonding ritual for predominantly white men in suits enacting their obsession with force. DSEI puts the global war elite’s drastic detachment from the real-world needs of people and planet into sharp relief. Inside the fair, “defence” and “security” materialise as glaring euphemisms for military-industrial might and titillating experiments in how to model the future of warfare in line with Hollywood fantasies of high-tech battles between good and evil. Rather than signal a dedication – however deceptive – to keeping people safe, the event felt like an inferno of white men in suits blatantly driven by that boyish excitement for tech, kinetics, heroism, beauty, sex and money. And yet, there are enough of these men in power across the globe to make it seem as if they are the realists responding to real threats.

An advertisement with the words "pro-tech-ing people and planet". The image shows a snowy landscape with a military vehicle.
Norwegian Kongsberg, marketing sustainability, DSEI 2023. Credit: Nico Edwards

Sex in The marketplace of war

In 1985 Carol Cohn shared her canonical experience of the construction of exactly that chimerical “hard-nosed realism” among white male American “defence intellectuals”, with its dangerous claim to “cool-headed objectivity” and “hyper-rationality.” Besides the rationalisation of war as a techno-strategic calculation, Cohn was struck by the men’s explicitly sexualised relationship to nuclear weapons and warmaking. The creation of the atomic bomb and the doctrines around its use, Cohn found, were rife with phallic imagery, competitive male sexuality and the promise of sexual domination.

Four decades later I wrote in my DSEI diary that “8 out of 10 of my encounters with different military sector actors at the fair have been outright sexualising. Even worse, I am constantly forced to participate in my own sexualisation – to allow it to continue, to play along with it.” I had never properly read Cohn’s piece, which became so foundational to feminist approaches to war and global politics. Yet reading her after my visit to DSEI I realised that not much had changed in the “rational” world where war is theorised, bought and sold.

I headed to DSEI having abandoned gender as an analytic, attempting in the past years to break away from the gender straightjacket as a woman security scholar. I emerged with a rabid need to dust off the generations of feminist writers who had already experienced just that: toxic masculinity as the enduring bedrock of war and militarism.

Rob is a useful entrance into my experience of attending the fair as a woman. We wouldn’t have met if he and his arms tech friends at the designated DSEI pub had not deemed me fuckable and thus worth approaching to invite to their table. They never used that exact word, but to me it’s the term that comes closest to their myriad ways of alluding to sexual intercourse, sometimes gentle and indirect, sometimes rough and definitive.

Rob introduced me to everyone he thought could help me with my research, and invited me to socialise on and off the event grounds. While becoming my “friend”, he felt the persistent need to explicitly mark me as a sexual object: constantly commenting on my being a young woman added with different adjectives for attractive added with the key details of being blonde, blue eyed and Swedish. A trope that in his world, and he assumed for all other men at DSEI too, was particularly enticing.

A large fighter jet on display.
BAE Systems Eurofighter Typhoon, DSEI 2023. Credit: Nico Edwards

Rob and others with him were utterly unable (or perhaps unwilling) to bond with me solely on the grounds of social or intellectual chemistry. That is, beyond the possibilities of sexual pursuit. Be it his own pursuit, or through offering me up to other men as potential game. My collective sexualisation became a bonding mechanism for a majority of the men I met, even as a conversation topic among these men about but above me, while I was sitting at the same table or standing by the same stall. Like the Australian pavilion reps bonding with the Turkish ammunition producers over my (Swedish blonde) appearance. Or a British Army Vet making plain to an Australian General that he’s well above the legal sex age (“well in my rights to consent to sex, if you know what I mean”), so much so that he could be my dad.

I remember going to the fair assuming that my unknowing-girl look, a young woman looking lost and not talking the lingo, would discredit me. That it’d make the white men in suits not bother taking the time to talk. I left having learnt the opposite. Instead, my allure as a woman out-of-place, offering that potential of sex yet not being reducible to “a booth babe” – the only other mainstreamed role for women to take at arms fairs, who “you can’t have a proper conversation with” (Rob’s words) – made me at once interesting and non-threatening to engage. Instead, I became someone to be confined in, to banter and boast with, letting off steam about the ridiculousness and grandeur of their trade. Had these men not felt drawn to sexualising me and had I not played along, I wouldn’t have gathered half of the information I got – even regarding sustainability.

Attending DSEI in a female body I became a razor-sharp crystallisation of just how palpable a socialising force that sexism remains in 2023, and how it’s reached a climax in the world of war. I became a literal bodily inscription of unhinged entitlement among white men belonging to the 1%. The following are actual quotes and examples of the things said to me by some of the men I met during DSEI. Men that see it fit to “compliment” you as DSEI’s equivalent to a booth babe. Dehumanise you through calling you a “render”, a “simulation” of “the ultimate woman.” Men that stop you on the exhibition floor for a personal chat only to tell you that you’re a vessel for the “reproduction” of their “virus”. Men that tell you to stop talking as your Swedish accent will make them orgasm – “or wait, please don’t stop, I just won’t hear you properly, and when my eyes roll back into my head you’ll know what’s going on.” That tell you to keep eating the slices of pizza bianca with cum-looking cheese “just like that” as it demonstrates how you’d take a large-size penis in your mouth “and you have to swallow it.” Men that equate you with a candy, something edible, something to be acquired and tasted. That relegate you to the status of a babe albeit with a brain. What do you take away from a world that reduces you to the state of “fuckable Swedish blonde” in more manners of speaking than you can recount?

On the last day I described my experiences to Rob, aghast at how grown men were not embarrassed behaving like lads-on-tour among their high-level sector peers. Hearing this, Rob and his drone engineer friend laughed and rolled their eyes, confirming the opposite: these men want to be seen “chatting up the blonde.” In this world that doesn’t take away points, it gives you social capital, especially the higher up the hierarchy ladder you get. The men watching “were probably jealous.”

A large podium exhibiting fire arms. There are a large number of business people miling around.
Sig Sauer firearms stand, DSEI 2023. Credit: Nico Edwards

War, weapons, money, women    

My time at DSEI made one thing glaringly obvious: how these men’s entitlement operate along a spectrum of power and privilege that range from money, weapons, credibility and capital, to women, girls and the feminised body as a vessel for their pleasure and status. Their self-proclaimed right to my body is the same as their entitlement to trading in the global distribution of life and death.

The chauvinism and power plays that rage inside the world of defence men expose women and other feminised identities (womxn) to remarkable forms of sexualised and other violence in peace and war-time. These norms pin womxn to the enduring categories of virgins and madonnas, wives and mothers, crones and whores. Or, as per my DSEI experience, desirable vs. not desirable.

As a white Scandinavian woman, I can’t speak to what forms of racism a woman of colour would experience in this space. Or what forms of discrimination would make themselves known to gender nonconforming or disabled persons in my position. But from the raging sexualisation, infantilisation and exotification that met me as a white, blonde and blue eyed, able-bodied Swedish cis-woman, I have a hunch of what systems of denigration, desire and harm that would crystallise in the encounter with womxn not fitting with this normative category. After all, we learnt long ago that the principles of valuation and entitlement that informs those tropes around the fuckable Swedish blonde belong to the same grid of power, exploitation and exclusion that feeds racism, ableism, homo- and transphobia.

But the violent consequences of this power grid, and the norms it sustains, are far from only affecting womxn. They are also the norms that force men into the inhumane roles of sexual predators, soldiers and martyrs. That mould men into dutiful patriots. That demand that they relinquish their right to a life free from the use and reception of violence – sacrificing their sense of humanity, their vulnerability and emotional sensitivity, and their access to intimacy beyond sexual domination.

Yet, the fact remains that most of the men attending DSEI are not those suffering the real-life consequences of their trade nor their toxic masculinity. While their entitlements wreak havoc across the world, the architects and entrepreneurs of global war instead operate in an alternative reality. A reality upholding those “rational systems” that Cohn identified in the 80s, which still dictate politics for much of the world despite the glaringly obvious truth: that there’s nothing rational about war or society’s disproportionate investment in it. An alternative reality, where, to the profiteers of death, war is but a videogame, weapons but toys, and women but prey.

Welcome to hell   

Less than a month after my visit to the fair, this surreal subworld demonstrated the indescribable suffering generated by its application to real life: to real people, real dreams, real ecologies. Ongoing horrors in Gaza and Ukraine are far from the first epicentres in which the desires of the global war elite are culminating in civilian flesh and blood, soils and aquifers. They will not be the last.

DSEI Diary- Saturday Sep 16


… I left DSEI with one realisation weighing heavier than the others, etched into my skin despite my mind’s fervent attempts to stop living in the body that DSEI confined me to and get back to intellectualising, to doing my research – that the people profiting from plunging this planet toward apocalypse still live in an alternate playground reality of sex and power, enacting their fantasies of phallic force, heroism and wealth upon the world with full impunity while homosocialising over their proximity to violence and money, drinking vodka from glass-skulls (no-joke) invigorated by the message flashing all around them in an eerily truthful reference to the reality of their trade: WELCOME TO HELL.

A bowl of sweets, in black wrappers, with the words "welcome to hell" printed on each one.
Bofors Test Center, offering vodka and candies with the text Welcome to Hell, DSEI 2023. Credit: Nico Edwards

Author information

Nico is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Sussex (UK), researching militarism and ecological injustice. She is also an Advisor to Scientists for Global Responsibility, Associated Researcher with the World Peace Foundation and author of the new report Resisting Green Militarism: Building Movements for Peace and Eco-Social Justice.

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About the authors

Nico is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Sussex (UK), researching militarism and ecological injustice. She is also an Advisor to Scientists for Global Responsibility, Associated Researcher with the World Peace Foundation and author of the new report Resisting Green Militarism: Building Movements for Peace and Eco-Social Justice.