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

What the world can do about sexual violence in conflict

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A victim of a 2011 mass rape attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo poses for a photo, her identity concealed for security reasons / AP

It doesn't matter where you look; sexualized violence is intrinsic to conflict. Qaddafi's soldiers committed rape in the last days of Libya's regime. The Egyptian military has been sexually violating female journalists and protesters in that revolution. Across the Democratic Republic of Congo, hundreds of thousands of women are suffering the fallout of the sexualized violence that has torn apart their bodies, their families, and their communities.

A new project from the Women's Media Center, initiated by one of its founders, journalist and activist Gloria Steinem, has begun documenting this tool of war and genocide. From the Holocaust through today, Women Under Siege is illuminating the causes as well as the cures of sexualized violence by uncovering patterns and making links between them.

As the director of Women Under Siege, as well as a journalist myself, I interviewed Steinem about sexualized violence in conflict and what needs to be done to understand and stop it.

What are some of the reasons rape is so prevalent in war?

First, it's important to note that rape and war didn't always go together. For instance, European colonists wrote astonished letters home about how "even these savages" -- by which they meant the residents of this continent they were invading -- didn't rape, not even their women prisoners. But those were wars of self-defense. If you're going to get groups of men to risk their humanity, health, and lives in wars of offense, the traditional way is not to pay them a lot, but to addict them to the "cult of masculinity." You have to convince them they're not "real men" unless they kill and conquer. And, at its most basic, "masculine" means not being "feminine." On a continuum, it means controlling women, conquering women, raping women, even with objects: bottles and broom handles in "peacetime" here, and gun barrels and knives in Bosnia or Congo. There's a reason why it's a truism that rape is not sex, it's violence.

It's also true that men may rape in groups out of social pressure to prove their "masculinity" -- in peacetime, too -- but gang mentality is a way of life in war. Military officers sometimes order men to rape as proof of loyalty and shared culpability. Some men express regret and say they wouldn't have raped without group pressure. Also the group hatred war requires means humiliating enemies by raping "their" women, implanting sperm, taking over their means of reproduction, wiping out the enemy race or ethnicity. Cultures that put all "honor" in the purity of "their" women -- and keep women weak -- are actually setting them up as targets.

Even in peacetime, the "cult of masculinity" is so powerful that men commit crimes in which they have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose: "senseless" killings like those in schools and post offices, serial murders, domestic violence, stalking, killing their wives and children and then killing themselves. They're not hate crimes because they don't hate the people they kill -- but those people symbolize their lack of control, and so are killing the "masculinity" on which their whole sense of self depends. In interviews, such men often describe themselves as victims because they believe they should have been allowed to have control. I think we should call such crimes "supremacy crimes."

What do you say to people who assert that sexualized violence is a "natural" part of conflict?

I try to think of something from the past that was also thought to be "natural," and wasn't. For instance, violence was once a "natural" part of childrearing, as in, "Spare the rod, spoil the child." It was also "natural" in marriage, as in, "Wives and bells must be struck regularly." It was "natural" in religion, as in flagellating and starving the flesh to free the spirit.

Or I quote Olof Palme, the great former prime minister of Sweden, who said that gender roles are the deepest cause of violence on earth, and it's up to governments to humanize them. Gender roles may give us our first idea that it's okay for one group to eat and the other to cook, one to talk and the other to listen, one to order and the other to obey, one to be subject and one as object. The most shared characteristic of original societies in which violence was only for self-defense, not armies -- and of the most egalitarian societies now -- is that gender roles are fluid and not polarized.

So you might say it's the reverse. Conflict is not the only or even the primary normalizer of the extremes of "masculine" and "feminine." Those roles at home are the normalizers of conflict.

What inspired you to start Women Under Siege?

Two important books lit a match to what was already a long-standing concern. First, Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel sent me a manuscript of their anthology called Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust. I didn't know them and they were only asking for a quote, but once I read it, I was outraged. Why had it taken 65 years to reveal these facts? Why were they ignored at Nuremberg? If we'd known, might it have helped prevent rape camps in the former Yugoslavia? Or rape as a weapon of genocide in the Congo?

I got in touch with the authors and asked if the Women's Media Center could help by making these connections. Our first panel linked scholars of the Holocaust with women's current experience in the Congo. It was a big learning moment for us all.

Then I read At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance -- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power, by Danielle McGuire. It roots much of the civil rights movement in the massive sexual abuse of black women. For instance, Rosa Parks was investigating a gang rape of a black woman by seven white men in Montgomery, so the bus boycott was more a result than a cause. Black women's resistance to sexual assault helped fuel the movement.

For me, inspiration comes from seeing positive results. For instance, a woman survivor of brutal rape in the Congo is rejected by her family, but learns she's not alone or at fault from the story of a Jewish woman who survived rape and the Holocaust only to be shunned as if she had collaborated. Each example illuminates another. We have to know what's wrong to change what's wrong, but the special problem of sexualized violence is used to silence and shame the victim.

Documenting the problem allows individual victims to know they're not alone or at fault, and allows the institutions of society to create remedies, from laws to education.

Naming sexualized violence as a weapon of war makes it visible and subject to prosecution. In the past, what happened to men was political, but what happened to women was cultural. The first was public and could be changed, and the second was private, off limits, even sacred. By making clear that sexualized violence is political and public, it breaches that wall. It admits that sexualized violence can be changed.

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.