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
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
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.