On Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: The Case of Wartime Male Rape

ELLEN GORRIS

Mass rapes, forced pregnancies and genital mutilations have been documented in past and current situations of war. Sexual violence affects individuals and their communities and can occur in a number of settings like detention centres, military sites, refugee camps and people’s homes, both during and after conflict (Lewis, 2009: 20). As exemplified by the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon (S/2009/362, 2009: para. 4):

sexual violence is deeply dehumanizing, inflicts intense mental and physical trauma, and is often accompanied by fear, shame and stigma.

Recent reports of the UNSG to the UNSC concerning conflict-related sexual violence, have highlighted also sexual violence against men and boys, deeming it an ‘emerging concern’, (A/67/792-S/2013/149, 2013 and S/2015/203, 2015). Though a relatively ‘silent topic’ in sexual violence literature and international media, male rape and other forms of sexual violence against men and boys have been frequently documented in past conflicts. Also (legal) scholars are increasingly paying attention to male victims of wartime sexual violence. Whilst most of this research focuses on theorizing the ‘silent’ nature, recommending further research and data collection, some scholars, such as Lara Stemple (2009) and Sandesh Sivakumaran (2010), point to a lack of an adequate legal framework and to the under-recognition or invisibility of men and boys in international security discourse and human rights instruments related to sexual violence as most of them focus on the victimisation of women and girls.

In this short piece I will propose three challenges to the exclusive focus on women and girls as victims of conflict-related sexual violence. Firstly, I will demonstrate that men and boys are also frequently raped and sexually abused in war but remain invisible in laws and policies aimed at addressing the problem. Secondly, I will argue that this wartime violence targeted at men may also be gender-based in frequent cases. And thirdly, I will conclude that we should reconsider our meaning of gender and take an intersectional approach to a victim’s multiple identities.

As a caveat, I would like to stress that, like scholars such as Rosemary Grey and Laura Shepherd, I view researching sexual violence against men as befitting a feminist research agenda, which endeavours to rectify invisibilities and engage critically with what happens at the margins of dominant perceptions and constellations (Grey and Shepherd, 2008: 112). In researching conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys I do not intend to marginalize the frequent and broad victimization of women. My aim is simply to shed light on an arguably invisible group of victims of sexual violence. The fact that men and boys are invisible victims of sexual violence may be an indirect and unintentional result of the extremely necessary efforts of the women’s rights movement that put sexual violence and violence against women high on the international agenda. As will be referred to later, some scholars have pointed to the theory of ‘feminization’ to make male victims subordinate to the perpetrator. While some feminists take as a starting point the fact that women’s subordination and inferior status are confirmed by sexual violence, and such violence is both an expression and a result of structural discrimination towards women, perpetrators of sexual violence against male victims pursue the same effects on men. Sexual violence against women and men can therefore be seen at times as interlinked, and to fully understand sexual violence and why it occurs necessitates looking at both genders and their victimisation. Some activists have argued also that the taboo and invisibility that male victims are experiencing now are not dissimilar to what happened to women rape victims in the 1960s and 1970s and that therefore much can be learnt from the women’s rights movement (for an account of interviews with activists see Gorris, 2015: 420-427).

Laws and policies on sexual violence frequently do not encompass men and boys

Already in the 1990s the UN documented sexual violence against men in the conflict in the Former Yugoslavia. Many scholars refer to the Sarajevo Canton, where no less than 80% of 5000 male detainees were reportedly raped or fell victim to other forms of sexual violence (UN Commission of Experts, 1994). More recently, rape and other forms of sexual violence against men have been documented in 25 conflicts worldwide in the last 10 years and in 59 when including sexual violence against boys (Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces, Bastick et al., 2007). In 2013, conflict-related sexual violence against men was dubbed an ‘emerging concern’ by the UNSG, referring to sexual violence experienced by men in conflicts in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Syria (A/67/792-S/2013/149, 2013: paras. 10, 17, 27, 45, 73, 84–85, 90). Particular media attention has been paid to the bachi-bacha practice in Afghanistan (where warlords frequently have boy sex slaves) and male rape against civilian men in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Gettleman, 2011; Storr, 2011). Frequently experienced forms of sexual violence against men and boys are: anal rape, penetration with objects, castration and forced sterilization, genital mutilation, forced rape of others (including family members), sitting in chemical baths, forced oral sexual acts on soldiers, enforced nudity, and forced masturbation. Some scholars say that this is part of an ancient practice where victorious soldiers would rape the losing soldiers, as a last and further method of complete humiliation, stripping them from their soldier and masculine identity (Zawati, 2007: 33-34). In more recent times women have also been found to be perpetrators, notably in the Abu Ghraib scandal (Alexandra, 2007).

In the face of such documentation, why are male victims so invisible in the public’s mind and legal instruments? This is a complicated and interconnected matter but the very short answer is: it is a national and international law policy issue, as well as societal issue. Firstly, at national level, criminal codes may not have rape definitions where the victim can be male (Solangon and Patel, 2012). Victims may for that reason be seen as having engaged in a homosexual act, still a ‘crime’ in around 80 countries. In addition, historically, it is the women’s movement that has brought sexual violence in conflict to broader attention, which has led to a predominant focus on female victims, as it adopted violence against women (including sexual violence) as one of its core agenda points (Stemple, 2009). As the label of “Women, Peace and Security” (a line of UNSC resolutions that started with Resolution 1325) suggests, the focus is on women and girls (Sivakumaran, 2010). Whereas the UN inter-agency initiative Stop Rape Now! UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict is both laudable and incredibly necessary, its emphasis is again on the suffering of women and girls (Grey and Shepherd, 2008). Indeed, most legal instruments and policies on sexual violence operate with a female-specific approach, (implicitly) excluding men as a victim group.

Through explicitly naming and including women and girls in instruments and not mentioning the possibility of male victims at all, a victim hierarchy is established based on someone’s ‘descriptive’ gender identity. Moreover, possibly due to the same timing in the 1990s in which the terms ‘sexual violence’, ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ entered the UN discourse in different women’s rights instruments, these terms are frequently conflated, all solely describing female victimisation (Stemple, 2009). Most of these definitions are not found at all in ‘gender-neutral’ human rights law. Rather, male victims would find recourse under the heading of torture, though the definitions in the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) do not contain the words ‘sexual’ or ‘gender-based’ (Ibid.: 636-637; Hennessy and Gerry, 2012:13).

In war, international humanitarian law and international criminal law fulfil a dual role of protecting both women and men from sexual violence: humanitarian law by prohibiting it as a crime, and international criminal law by way of deterrence through prosecution for both men and women. Furthermore, freedom from torture is a non-derogable right (ICCPR, Article 4), and therefore arguably better protected than freedom from gender-based violence, as even when a country is at war or in a state of emergency torture is prohibited (CAT, Article 2). Possibly for this reason, feminists have been advocating for the recognition of rape as a form of torture for years (MacKinnon, 1993).

However, the differentiation between gender-based violence (women) and torture (gender neutral) in human rights law can lead to a different reconstruction of victims: when it happens to women it will likely be categorized, or advocated for, within the context of the gender-based dimension, while when it happens to men they will be seen as victims of torture. This framework leads to the narrative or dominant perception that only women can be victims of gender-based violence.

Image: Will Storr for the Observer

© Will Storr for the Observer

In this context we must also look critically at how sexual violence data is gathered. Some activists that I have interviewed (Gorris, 2015) told me that this is one of the critical issues: if you only ask women and girls (and never men and boys) if they are raped, this will confirm the fact that they are the dominant victim group. Another important issue is that victims rarely come forward: men tend to use general terms when describing their abuse (‘beatings’, ‘abuse’) eliding the specific sexual aspect, as they feel that being a victim of sexual violence is not compatible with their masculinity (Solangon and Patel 2012: 423; Oosterhoff et al., 2004; Lewis, 2014). This plethora of different approaches entails a great deal of very practical problems for survivors and victims of the abuse, including a lack of support services, misidentification and under-reporting, and limited possibilities for human rights advocacy for male victims of gender-based violence.

Sexual violence against men and boys as gender-based violence

Researchers have shown that sexual violence targeting men and boys is arguably also gender-based. Sexual violence is used to emasculate a victim, linked to attributing homosexual or a feminine identity to him (Sivakumaran, 2007). This is therefore intrinsically linked with the social construction of the woman, or the non-heterosexual male, as enjoying a lower status than a hetero-sexual male. Therefore, certain dimensions of male-directed and female-directed violence can be interlinked or similar, partly due to deconstructive norms relating to hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic heterosexuality.

Due to the fact that it is exactly these gender relations that make sexual violence against men (and women) such a ‘successful’ method of humiliation and torture during wartime, it should be considered highly problematic that the laws and policies designed to overcome these horrific crimes tend to further exacerbate and confirm this dichotomy. However, the female-focused system actually aids, confirms and reconstructs traditional gender roles, reconstructing the dichotomy of the “man/protector/fighter and woman/protected/victim” (Koo, 2002: 530). Male-to-male wartime sexual violence is arguably no less gendered than male-to-female violence and should also be considered as gender-based violence. Indeed, a gendered perspective is needed to tackle this issue, but this cannot happen with a similarly gendered categorization of women as nonviolent victims and men as violent perpetrators, and non-victims. This leads to a framework that structurally discriminates against male victims of sexual violence, barring them from adequate resources and limiting further research on sexual violence in general.

Additionally, particularly in wars and genocide, someone’s religious, ethnic, or political affiliation may determine their vulnerability, intersecting with their gender. For example, sexual violence can and has also been used to structurally change the ethnic make-up of a society: impregnating the women and castrating the men. One can only identify this as the reason for sexual violence if an open mind is kept towards who can be a victim.

A change of perspective: a more intersectional approach to sexual violence

So what could the solution be? I would like to propose two theoretical recommendations. Firstly, concepts like gender and sexual- and gender-based violence should be expanded, re-evaluated or at least used consistently and with care, rather than solely applying to women, and thereby excluding men. Where multiple human rights are impacted, the harm caused should also be considered in multiple categories because this would allow for a more comprehensive view of the suffering of male (and other) victims. This is not only essential for providing such victims with access to adequate protection, but also for us to learn more about forms and manifestations of sexual violence and to go against self-confirming data. After the much-needed adoption of instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the UNSC Resolution 1325, it is now time to adequately integrate a ‘gender’ perspective into the experiences of both men and women. One cannot fully address the issue of wartime sexual violence without paying attention to women’s and men’s interlinked suffering. The issue of wartime male-directed sexual violence does not need to be prioritised, but foregrounded, acknowledging the multiple facets of sexual violence (Sivakumaran, 2005: 4).

Secondly, and this is particular to a wartime setting, the use of single categories (in this case someone’s descriptive gender) to determine vulnerability, and therefore protection, is limited and can shield the reasons why sexual violence occurs. There is a need to carefully consider exactly who is in need of protection and what determines vulnerability. For instance, in a war someone’s ethnicity or political or religious affiliation may be extremely important in determining vulnerability for violence. Looking only at gender (and then only the female gender) to determine vulnerability limits the possibility of inclusion of non-female victims that may be victimised due to these other identities. A proposed approach to cross-cut these issues is Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectional approach (1991: 1242), a multidimensional method of not only revealing the multitude of identities that a ‘body’ carries (including race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, social class, etc.) but also of making sure that we do not organize human rights in a ‘one-identity’-categorizing manner (Symington, 2004: 2), where only one identity enables a person to claim a right.

Looking ahead: activism and feminism

The topic of conflict-related sexual violence against men is being increasingly included in scholarly research. In 2013 the UN organised a special workshop highlighting the plight of male victims, and ever since men and boys have been more frequently included in international policy documents including, for instance, UNSC Resolution 2106 (Gorris, 2015). Most importantly, there are a number of activists who are keenly engaged in ensuring that this issue receives more attention. Leading figures in this movement are: the Refugee Law Project’s director Chris Dolan, First Step Cambodia’s Alastair Hilton and MSSAT New Zealand’s Ken Clearwater. Together they have set up an international forum, the South South Institute on Sexual Violence against Men and Boys, which has gathered twice now every two years to bring together survivors, researchers and advocates. Particularly in Uganda, where the Refugee Law Project is active, a number of male survivor groups have been established over the past few years, and male survivors have told their stories through video advocacy.

To ensure that these survivors and survivors in current conflicts have access to services and justice, it is necessary that men and boys victims are structurally included in our conversations and actions on sexual violence. Without detracting anything from the situation of female victims, there needs to be recognition that looking solely at their suffering limits our understanding of sexual violence in toto. Additionally, it is also my hope that by opening our perspectives on victimhood, we can also move away from women’s reconstruction as solely victims. Looking at the UNSC Women, Peace and Security framework, most of the Resolutions focus on women’s role as victims, rather than also at their roles as peacemakers and political leaders after conflict. By envisioning ‘gender and war’ as a broader concept, space would be opened up to focus on women and men as victims and on women’s important roles as change-makers. At the same time by recognizing the vulnerabilities of men and making this less taboo, it is my hope that our gender scale becomes more balanced, and our perspectives are broadened.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Ellen Gorris (E.MA 2012/13) holds degrees in European Law (LL.B, Maastricht University) and Public International Law (LL.M, University of Amsterdam). She is a policy assistant on rights of the child at the European Commission, but writes this article in her private capacity. The views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained in this article. Twitter: @ellengorris

 

One thought on “On Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: The Case of Wartime Male Rape

  1. Just like mob has no religion, the victim has no gender, in both war and peace. I am slowly fortifying myself to face the grim realities of the ‘spiritual capital’ of the world, India. I am conducting the research of human rights violation under ‘Incidence, Occurrence, Reporting and Impact of Incest in select cities of India’. The stories being shared by respondents of are hair raising. Perpetrators are insensitive towards the age and gender of their victim.

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