Gloria Steinem on Rape in War, Its Causes, and How to Stop It

Why use the term "sexualized" violence?

Because there's nothing sexual about violence. Sex is about pleasure. Violence is about pain. Nature tells us what's good for us by making it pleasurable, and what's bad for us by making it painful. To get those things mixed up usually requires a childhood in which people we loved and depended on inflicted pain, and we came to believe we couldn't get one without the other.

It also works the other way around. People, especially men addicted to "masculinity," may think that inflicting pain is the only way they can get sexual pleasure. For instance, I didn't learn there was a mammoth concentration camp only for women -- it was called Ravensbrück -- until the end of the 1970s when my friend Konnilyn Feig included it in her book called, Hitler's Death Camps. Nazi doctors performed a higher proportion of so-called medical experiments there -- they simulated battle wounds and amputations, practiced surgeries and forms of sterilization; endless horrors -- and their subjects were mainly young, beautiful women. The other women in the camp called them "rabbits" because they were used as lab animals. They tried to protect them. This was the slow sexualized violence known as sadism.

Sexualized violence is frequently underreported. Why do you think this is?

It seems to be the one remaining form of violence in which the victim is blamed or even said to have invited it. That's true even where women have the ability to report and bring charges -- at least on paper. In other cultures, the victim is not only blamed but punished and shunned. For instance, Equality Now is working on the case of a young Buddhist nun in Nepal who was raped by men on a bus and then told by Buddhist monks that she couldn't be a nun anymore because she wasn't a virgin. We can help to expose sexualized violence wherever we live.

Do we need both men and women involved to stop these atrocities?

Yes, we do. There is more responsibility where there's more power. Though women have a responsibility to speak up for ourselves -- to reverse the Golden Rule and treat ourselves as well as we treat others -- men have more power and so are responsible not only for their own behavior, but for creating an atmosphere in which men are penalized for violence toward women and rewarded for treating women as equals. It's parallel to the fact that I, as a white person, have more responsibility for white racism than do the people of color who suffer from it.

Men also can show each other the rewards of full humanity. It's been said that the woman a man most fears is the woman within himself. Men are punished by being cut off from human qualities denied to them as "feminine." I think one element in men's punishing and killing of women is an effort to do away with what they fear within themselves.

Does your work in the women's movement give you encouragement that we can make headway on sexualized violence in conflict?

Yes, absolutely. In my lifetime, we've shown that rape is not sex but violence, and changed the laws that required a virginal victim and a bystander willing to testify. In my high school, boys used to say there was no such thing as rape, that "you can't thread a needle unless the needle holds still." They're not saying that anymore. Actually, I get letters from men in prison who really understand rape because, in the absence of women, they've been used as women. Sexualized violence, in and out of conflict, has been named and punishments codified. Now we have to get this off paper and into life.

Do you think it's ever possible to bring these atrocities to an end or at least significantly curb them?

Yes, I do. To say otherwise would be to excuse them as human nature. We know there have been societies in which such crimes were rare or absent; they are not human nature. And even if they were, the most significant characteristic of humans -- the one that allows our species to survive -- is that we're adaptable. Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy. Because we genderize the study of childrearing as "feminine" and the study of conflict and foreign policy as "masculine," we rarely see that the first causes the second. Of course, the goal is to stop war altogether. If we raised even one generation of children without violence and shaming, we have no idea what might be possible. But at least we can limit war to those who want to fight it.

What do you say to people who believe that this happens far from home, in societies beyond repair? In other words, that there's nothing we can do.

I say, Open your eyes, watch the news, talk to the women in your families and neighborhoods, listen to our women soldiers who were raped by their own comrades. The difference is only one of degree. No society is beyond reproach or beyond repair.

This project is not trying to create a competition of tears. It's wrong whether men or women are suffering. It's just that the suffering has to be visible and not called inevitable or blamed on the victim before we can stop it.

Presented by

Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. Wolfe is a former senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She writes regularly at

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in Global

Just In