WMC Women Under Siege

What does it mean when women perpetrate gang rapes?

When I research rape in war, particularly gang rape, three thoughts prevail:

First, the repeated illustration that rape is the expression of dominance, a vicious and complex way of ensuring that certain people and institutions function and thrive; second, that sexualized violence is not inevitable; and third, that women in the world experience life the way that imprisoned men, or vulnerable boys in virtually exclusively male institutions, do.

War appears to be, after all, a perpetual institution. But whether or not conflict involves widespread sexualized violence varies tremendously. Rape in war was once portrayed as inevitable and as being perpetrated almost entirely by men against women. Both assumptions, based on hierarchical ideas, gender stereotypes, and “natural” propensities for violence, are being challenged.

For good reason, the starting point of understanding rape in war has been the mass rapes of women during conflict in the 20th century. And only recently have we come to understand the extent to which boys and men are also targets of sexualized violence during conflict even if the fear of sexualized violence at the hands of other men during war is clearly understood by combatants. In a recently released video, Islamic State Jihadists from Iraq and Syria expressed a primary concern this way: “They will come and rape the men before the women.”

The presence and prominent visibility of women soldiers in Abu Ghraib photographs (one with Lynndie England in the poster here) was notable and made already horrific images even more jarring to many. (Justin Norman)

Social pressure—in war or frats—as a factor in rape

Harvard Professor Dara Kay Cohen’s work focuses on war violence in which traditional ideas about male perpetrators and female victims are pronounced: the rape of noncombatants. Her research explains why some conflicts result in widespread rapes of noncombatants and others do not. Yet her interests lie in not just what leads to an increased likelihood of this happening, but what women’s involvement means to prevailing theories of security and reparations.

In her study, “Female Combatants and the Perpetration of Violence: Wartime Rape in the Sierra Leone Civil War,” Cohen reports that in a survey of female survivors of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 40 percent reported women involved as perpetrators, as did 10 percent of male victims. This pattern, she notes, was repeated during conflicts in Liberia, Rwanda, and Haiti. Cohen’s thesis is that, in certain and extreme situations, both men and women respond to social pressure to participate in violence—including sexualized violence. Her previous work, “Explaining Rape During Civil War: Cross-National Evidence (1980-2009),” showed that the likelihood of rape in any particular conflict is linked to the methods by which soldiers are recruited; to state weakness; and to what insurgent’s sources of funding are in civil conflict. For example, when combatants—regardless of gender—are forcibly recruited, rape of noncombatants is twice as likely to be used to build unit cohesion.

Interestingly, Cohen’s findings indicate that ethnic hatred is not a significant factor in the prevalence of rape and, while gender inequality increases the likelihood of conflict onset, it does not appear to affect the incidence of rape once conflict has begun.

Her conclusions, which I think have relevance in civilian life, include the idea that rape in war becomes a primary method of group socialization and unit cohesion. Among the other theories that Cohen includes in her work is that of the “selection argument,” which holds that certain people are predisposed toward violence and join certain groups as a result.

“Groups that commit rape, then, should attract the types of people, whether male or female, who seek to perpetrate acts of sexual violence,” she concludes. Combined with the social bonding effects, the selection argument can yield difficult and, to many, surprising, effects.

Take, for example, Abu Ghraib and the role that women played in the sexualized and gendered tortures of Iraqi men. The presence and prominent visibility of women soldiers in Abu Ghraib photographs was notable and made already horrific images even more jarring to many. One of the most galvanizing photographs was of a slight American woman holding a dog leash that was attached to a naked man on all fours. While the three women involved did not rape their prisoners, they enacted abusive and sexualized behaviors commonly thought of as “male.” They documented the abject vulnerability of the prisoners and their complete power over them. Complete power over others is rarely exercised by women in this way, but when it is, they will, apparently, exercise it.

What happened at Abu Ghraib illustrated key aspects of gender theorist Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity, in that both the men and women engaged in behavior typically thought of as male. At the same time, they “feminized” the people they tortured.

When ‘militarized masculinity’ goes unchecked

Both Cohen’s work—as well as other proponents of the selection argument whose work she cites—have provocative implications for gang rapes that take place not just during war, but within military ranks as well as in civilian life. She maintains that “rape, and especially gang rape, enables armed groups with forcibly recruited fighters to create bonds of loyalty and friendship from difficult initial circumstances of fear and mistrust.”

So what happens when the rapes are not of enemy combatants or noncombatants but of other soldiers serving in the same forces? What happens when a “militarized sense of masculinity imparted to combatants through the training process,” as Cohen describes it, is expressed internally and unchecked by the chain of command?

For decades, the U.S. military has failed to stem the incredibly high tide of sexual assault within its ranks. Of the 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact, assault, and rape in the military during 2012, 13,900 were experienced by men. Men who rape other men in the military repeatedly indicate that they are heterosexual.

At the same time, women in the military make up 15 percent of ranks, but 47 percent of sexual assault survivors. To say that the integration of women into the U.S. military has been greeted by any sentiment other than hostility would be a gross misstatement. In one study, 37 percent of female veterans report being raped at least twice and14 percent of female veterans report being gang-raped.

However, men who served in the military long before women made up even that fraction are now coming forward with long-buried stories of their abuse. The numbers of men being sexually assaulted in the U.S. military strongly suggests that rape, particularly gang rape, is among the dominant culture’s normative methods of building social cohesion.

The dismantling effect on traditionally gendered power dynamics would be evident if people didn’t cling so dearly to stereotypes. In mid-November, in a somewhat bizarre and oddly reported case, a “Marine inmate’s wild claims” surfaced in the news. A man in a military brig alleged that “two female guards … over a period of months, subjected him to demeaning, deviant sexual contact, much of it unwanted. Worse … his pleas for help were ignored by those in charge.” The man, a convicted rapist serving five years in prison, said that the female guards “found him irresistible.”

The man was, in this equation, powerless and the women powerful—a reversal of gender roles in many dimensions: they were physically (armed) dominant; had institutional authority, which they abused; and, lastly, appeared to have benefited from the military’s widespread tolerance for this behavior. Phrases such as “much of it unwanted,” “forced sex,” and “irresistible” suggest that both the man and the Marine Corps Times were grappling with understanding, describing, and explaining the crime’s gender and power inversions.

In or out of the military, a man who is incarcerated and powerless has to face the very real possibility that he will be raped, almost always by other men. While difficult to pin down exactly, the number of men raped annually in American jails is in the hundreds of thousands.

Women who are incarcerated face twice the likelihood of assault, however—either at the hands of male guards, or other female inmates.

Women adapt to prevailing norms, even when violent

Cohen’s theses also resonate with the work of sociologist Peggy Reeves Sanday whose book, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus, includes a cross-cultural analysis of rape-tolerant and rape-intolerant communities. Sanday studied 95 different societies and found that rape was rare in 47 percent of them—and common in 18 percent of them, or the most “rape-prone,” a category that includes the U.S. In particular, Sanday documented the use of gang rape in the development of fraternal bonds and the role played by women in targeting, cultivating, and entrapping victims. 

Women in male-dominated environments survive and thrive not by challenging prevailing norms, but by adapting to them, including by expressing aggression and dominance.

Cohen’s first-person descriptions of the ways in which women combatants participate in gang rapes of other women were remarkably similar to Sanday’s descriptions of women who “join” fraternities, although further down the spectrum of violence. Women immersed in rape-prone cultures often collude with rapists for protection and status. Sanday found that not all fraternal societies rape, although in those that do, rape is clearly a way to establish social dominance. Rape, she explained, particularly gang rape, has a valuable status-enhancing performance aspect and cements a group’s unity. Whether rapes take place on college campusesin Indian slums, or as part of British street gang hazing, they share these basic features.

On Nov. 22, far away from either Sierra Leone or Lackland, Texas, two teenage girls in Florida were arraigned and charged with organizing the brutal gang rape of a 16-year-old girl. They lured the girl, with whom they had been friends since kindergarten, to a house and filmed themselves brutally assaulting her and holding her down while a 19-year-old man raped her. Two teenage boys, who had also been involved, were charged.

Both girls acted in ways that particularly disturb people—because of how they confounded gendered expectations about violence and rape.

“I don't know where it came from, but this is not my little girl,” said the mother of one.

Rape—gang rape, in particular—happens in male-dominated cultures among people where sex segregation is most extreme and where interpersonal violence is normative. War, fraternities, and gang cultures amplify these attributes. But not all human cultures exhibit these characteristics.

To the survivor of a ruthless gang rape, it makes no difference whether they are assaulted as civilians, as soldiers, or as noncombatants in civil conflict. And it makes no difference if they are assaulted by men or women.

In the end, brutality is brutality and dominance is dominance.

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, War, Rape



Soraya Chemaly
Director, WMC Speech Project, Activist, Writer
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