Rape still a powerful weapon of war


Displaced women from Darfur (17 November 2007)Last night, I heard this report on the BBC World Service about the rape of women and girls in the conflict in Darfur, based on this study by Human Rights Watch.  The BBC says that although rape has been a tool of warfare throughout this conflict, the patterns have changed–it’s not just the Janjaweed, anymore.  “Women and girls (photo, right) are now as likely to be assaulted in periods of calm as during attacks on their villages and towns.  Government soldiers, militiamen, and rebel fighters [are] also targeting women on the fringes of camps for displaced people spread around the region.”  We saw this in the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s–although prominent feminist legal theorist Catherine Mackinnon was important in drawing attention to the use of rape and forced pregnancy by Serb soldiers in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, this 1996 book by Beverly Allen looks like the comprehensive study of that human rights disaster.  So, as in Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan, one of the most important lessons we can learn about modern warfare is that women’s rights and safety are dramatically degraded in war zones, and that women’s rights are never the priorities of the new governments that rise in the wake of these wars.

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America: CoverWhile rape appears to have been common in European warfare transhistorically, it wasn’t univeral in the Americas.  For example, there is no evidence that Native or European American women in captivity among the Northeastern woodlands Indians were raped in the borderlands warfare of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries.  Captivity was a means of simultaneously weakening your enemy’s numbers and strengthening your own, so captives targeted for adoption were treated lovingly as family members, and thereby induced to stay.  (However, scholars have noted the use of rape as  tool of war by other Native Americans.)  As Sharon Block’s 2006 book, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America conclusively demonstrates, rape was mostly the tool and prerogative of European and Euro-American men in colonial America because of their dominance over other people’s bodies, principally enslaved women and women indentured servants.  Successful rape prosecutions were rare because sexual coercion by men was considered heteronormative, and consent wasn’t a serious issue:  women were supposed to resist, and men were supposed to press their advantage–so where’s the harm?  (At least, that’s what most communities said, especially if the victim was a low-status woman.)  The one constituency that was regularly convicted of rape was African American men, and Block demonstrates that rape prosecutions against black men in the eighteenth century were a means of policing and punishing their sexual access to white women. 

For those of you interested in rape and rape as a tool of war, Diary of an Anxious Black Woman has a trailer on her website for The Greatest Silence:  Rape in the Congo, which she notes will be shown on HBO tomorrow night, April 8.  The rape, torture, and mutilation of women has happened throughout the bloody civil war that’s raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for nearly a decade, by both foreign militias and the Congolese Army.  If you don’t have HBO, or can’t stay in to watch tomorrow, you can catch it at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women this June, courtesy of Women Make Movies.  (Historiann is in charge of the movie schedule, which isn’t final yet.  The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo will be shown sometime Friday, June 13 or Saturday, June 14 between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the West Bank Program Auditorium in Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota.)  The final film schedule will be posted later this month at the 2008 Conference website.

Do you think there are some universal–or near universal–laws about rape in warfare, or about rape in general?  Do you know of any exceptions to my (informed guess) that in modern warfare, “women’s rights and safety are dramatically degraded in war zones, and that women’s rights are never the priorities of the new governments that rise in the wake of these wars.”

UPDATEWOC Ph.D. has a post up about The Greatest Silence too.  She writes, “it is important for us to develop a complex theory of sexual violence that includes war and war that includes sexual violence as a tool of war. Once we do, we will be better able to address the specific cases of sexual violence in war zones and better protect women outside of war.”

UPDATE II:  Apparently, the U.S. Senate just last week held its first hearings on the use of rape as a weapon in warfare, with a special emphasis on rape in the Congo, including a screening of selections from The Greatest Silence, and testimony from the movie’s director, Lisa F. Jackson.  Thank you, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL).

0 thoughts on “Rape still a powerful weapon of war

  1. there is also a new genome and archeology study out that shows that rape was consistently used against indigenous women throughout the Americas while indigenous men were systematically slaughtered. It says the policy was nearly universal amongst Portuguese, French, Spanish and British colonials with the Portuguese exclusively practicing genocide/rape as their tool of colonization. I didn’t take the study info down tho. Does this sound familiar to you? or your readers? might be nice to have the cite . . .


  2. I don’t know that study–I’ll take a look for it. It sounds quite plausible, although I’m a little skeptical that French men would have engaged in the systematic rape of Native women in Canada or the Mississippi Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries. (I wouldn’t be surprized if their behavior in the Caribbean was like that of other Europeans). People in my field looking at sexuality on the borderlands have focused on intermarriage rather than rape, because for so long French (and some English) trappers and traders were very much in the minority, and they joined Indian families as people dependent on their new kin’s goodwill and connections. I’m assuming that the genome study can tell us whose DNA mixed with whose, but it can’t tell us much about agency, consent, or the specific ways in which power worked in these different relationships.

    Thanks for stopping by to comment!


  3. I do think there is a very frightening universal element to this issue. I did a historiographical paper on the use of rape in Japan during WWII- Yuki Tanaka’s monograph (listed below) speaks to this question of violence against women in times of war and occupation. While writing the paper I began to wonder about masculinity; the ways in which it is constructed and then reinforced during times of war. Many of the historians who have written about the “Comfort Women” simply discuss the fact that the Japanese did systematically rape the women living in occupied territories- they don’t discuss why (as if it is just expected that men will rape). I realize that at the time these historians were busy proving that Japan was in fact guilty of creating a system wherein thousands of women were raped (Japan’s government has only recently begun to take partial responsibility for its actions). All this to say, I’d like to know how men, who have families and are considered good people, can turn into sadistic rapists.
    My partner, who is a biologist, wonders if the answer doesn’t lie in the ways in which war (particularly wars wherein a great deal of hate and anger are involved like in Bosnia and Darfur)forces the brain to go into “survival mode” thus allowing a seemingly good person to become an animal (by turning off the part of our brain which makes us unique to other animals). In nature the lion kills the other lion and then mates with the dead lion’s females. I don’t like this argument simply because it seems to excuse a horrific action with “it’s in their nature” and thus cannot help themselves. But I do wonder what it must take to be able to kill another human being in the first place. While the Japanese vets who have agreed to interviews (that I watched) all mention the role nationalism and militarism played in their thinking, many seem confounded at how they could go from being farm boys (or something equally distant from being a soldier) to brutal murderers and rapists. They talk of not being able to control themselves; of being crazed and (to their surprise) remorseless. Are they just saying that now to remove themselves from their actions? Are all men capable of this type of behavior? Is there a biological response which turns off one’s moral compass?

    Tanaka, Yuki. Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual slavery and prostitution during World War II and the US occupation. New York: Routledge, 2002.


  4. Thanks for commenting, Nicole, and for passing along the Tanaka book.

    I think that you’re right that historians haven’t necessarily inquired into the whys of how armies behave and how they’re made. Until fairly recently, I think most historians thought that looking at soldiers and masculinity (and how killing and rape construct military masculinity) was overdetermined. I was told specifically by some (older, male) colleagues (at another university) that they thought my book was the dumbest idea in the world–“of course soldiering is about manhood, why do we need your stupid monograph to tell us that?”

    Historicizing manhood de-naturalizes it and reveals it for the social construction that it is. I don’t go along with the animal brain thesis–I think it’s pretty clear that people rape and kill when they think they can get away with it. Invading armies are pretty good at getting away with it, by dint of economic or social capital, or by force of arms. Outside of the context of open warfare, in the colonial American cases I outlined it’s no accident that white men were greatest perpetuators of sexual violence against women–they lived in a society that defined property ownership (for the most part), citizenship rights, and gun ownership. And, because white men were the only people who were judges or sat on grand and petit juries, they did a good job of making sure that they were rarely held accountable (either by defining rape so narrowly that few could be charged, by turning away rape accusations before they ever got to court–women in the community helped out with this one–or by refusing to convict.)


  5. My research in Namibia has shown that throughout the twentieth century, rape was not a relevant category of legal distinction among the African population. There were no prosecutions for rape, and “consent” was not, as far as I can tell, recognized, at least juridically, as relevant at all to issues of sexual intercourse. Women were either property of their husbands or property of their fathers. If they were impregnated, prior to marriage, (regardless of whether they consented to the sexual intercourse or not), then the offending man was punished, and had to make reparations to the woman’s family. This situation was certainly not unique among African social systems prior to and during colonial rule.


  6. I love that comfort women book, I use an excerpt from it in my unit on sexual violence and war!

    I don’t think the new study dealt with Canada only LACS & no genomes can’t tell us anything about agency. The study is based on DNA and forensic work. At the time, I thought “duh” with regards to rape and pillage in the village but now I wish I’d written it down . . .


  7. No, I didn’t mean to imply that. I meant that there seems to be continuity on this count between precolonial and colonial Namibia. In post-colonial Namibia (Namibia was not freed of colonial rule until 1990), rape is a crime, and the Namibian constitution is one of the most progressive in the world when it comes to gender equality. However, I am sure the reality on the ground remains more complicated. For one, the country’s high incidence of HIV (between 25-30 percent of the adult population) has led to a sharp increase in so-called “curative” rape, in which HIV positive men rape virgins (often young girls) in the belief that this will somehow cure them of AIDS.


  8. OK–thanks for the clarification. That rape cure thing is really disturbing–I remember first hearing about that in the 1990s. Have Namibian or other African feminist organizations had any success in countering that particularly destructive medical myth? Let us know, if you know, David.


  9. In my experience, African views of AIDS are really complicated (people joke that AIDS stands for “American Invention to Destroy Sex”), but everyone is really afraid of it too. You always hear stories about young people committing suicide as soon as they learn they are infected, because of the extreme social stigma attached to the disease. There are efforts at sex education, but these are hampered by a lack of literacy and general education, as well as all the different languages spoken in the country. Also, activist groups and government organizations existing in the capital are often, as is the case elsewhere in Africa, quite out of touch with what is going on in rural areas. The capital city looks like a small European city, whereas in the northern part of the country the infrastructure is much weaker.

    I think the biggest problem is that these “home remedies” for AIDS, such as “curative rape” are filling a vacuum left by lack of medication. When health services fail to respond to a crisis, people will come up with their own responses, because they don’t want to die. People who are desperate are more likely to believe in this kind of thing, and of course, that infected men would target young women (and not just young women, but also little girls and even babies) also continues in a long line of the country’s patriarchal tradition.

    I guess I brought this up in this thread just to re-emphasize something we all know, which is that treating women in a brutal fashion, be it in war or not (and in many ways the AIDS crisis is a kind of war), is by no means unique to Western Europeans and their descendants.


  10. Thanks, David–you make a great point about how folk rememdies and rumours can proliferate in the absence of available, affordable treatment. I think you’re also right in describing AIDS as a social trauma that like war leads to the victimization of the socioeconomically weakest people, women and children.


  11. Historiann, I’d love to hear when your book gets published– this has been one of the issues I’ve always been most fascinated (and appalled) by.

    It is (obviously) well-known that the promise of rape and/or prostitution is a major ‘reward’ held out by armies in all ages to motivate men to fight. I was recently reading a fascinating study of Temur (tamerlane) in which, upon sacking a city, the emperor ordered his men to bring him a certain number of enemy heads — and, amazingly, to rape (a certain number of) enemy women. Thus rape becomes both a quantified punishment to the subject population, and (obviously) a quantifiable ‘reward’ to his troops.

    The Comfort Women book mentioned above is, of course, an absolute classic in the field- because it shows how much a modern state can *use* sex as part of the mythologizing of masculinity, and as part of the forced conversion of citizens into soldiers: japanese soldiers apparently didn’t feel like they were prepared for battle unless they’d visited a comfort woman prior to the campaign.

    To my mind, there’s only one aspect of rape’s usage in warfare that you don’t touch on in this post: propaganda that the other side is going to rape your women. I’m most familiar with the phenomena in WWII and its aftermath, although I’m sure you could go back far further. In the european theater, both German and Russian propaganda harped almost incessantly on the uncivilized, sexualized barbarians the Huns (Russians) or germans were. Most interestingly to me, though, is the fact that by the end of the war, fear of the (presumed) mass rape of German women by rampaging Russian soldiers became quite possibly the single largest feature of Nazi propaganda on the front. The argument was simple, really, and quite brilliant as a piece of propaganda: implicitly, it was ‘they’re going to do to your wives what you did to theirs’.

    What’s even more interesting to me, though, is that this myth- substantiated in part by the widespread actual crimes committed by invading Russian soldiers, became a central plank of the immidiate postwar west german state-sanctioned collective memory.(It’s still incredibly controversial how widespread it was– it’s very hard to research Nazi victims and not be called an apologist to genocide). The Massenvergewaeltigung (Mass rapes), as they were called, began to serve as way for postwar germany to come to terms with defeat, and disgrace, and to re-cast the German nation as a victim. I believe some politicians even made explicit comparisons between Germany, the nation, being ‘raped’ by Nazism and war, and the country’s women, being literally raped by Russian soldiers. (I’ll have to look that up.)

    Two more quick asides with which you may or may not be familiar:

    When American troops finially landed in France in 1917, the french military, as was established European practice at the time, arranged brothels staffed with French (and some colonial, i believe) women to accompany the American camps. Predictably, Wilson and the american military leadership (I don’t recall names right now) were aghast and adamantly declined. Of course, the brothels sprung up anyway, but without official gov’t sanction.

    Which brings me to my final anecdote, also re: the american army: In WWII, all major army bases had ‘stations’ for servicemen to disinfect themselves after venturing off-base to visit local prostitutes. Of course, with the moralizing and conservatism on the home front, this couldn’t really be public knowledge– but the army wouldn’t cease offering the prophylactic stations because they were terrified of the stratospheric STI rates some bases were reporting. So they kept them open, but barred photographers from taking any photos and even (i believe) subsumed the budget into something else so it wouldn’t be an obvious expense.

    It’s been a few years since i’ve read about any of this but i can get you sources if you’re interested.


  12. Thanks, mrbubs–the book I referenced in the comments above is published–you can read about it on the Abraham in Arms page at the top of the blog. However, it was my research on that book that informed my commentary on men who didn’t use rape as a tool of war, that is, the Northeast woodlands Indians in the 17th-18th centuries.

    Thanks for stopping by to leave such an informative comment! You’re absolutely right about the uses of rape in wartime propaganda–I think that Sharon Block’s book talks about the ways in which pro-Independence Americans used the threat of rape of American women by British soldiers during the Revolution. (This is one reason that I’m quite sure Algonquian and Iroquois men didn’t rape their captives–if there had been even the merest hint of another ugly thing to believe and/or fear about the Indians, English propagandists like Cotton Mather would have been all over that like a cheap suit. The English were willing to believe anything about the Indians, including rumors of the cannibalism of English babies and children, so we have to believe that they’d run with rape rumors too.)


  13. Pingback: The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo at Faux Real

  14. Pingback: Normalized Rape Epidemic in the Congo « Pizza Diavola

  15. women’s rights are never the priorities of the new governments that rise in the wake of these wars.

    Liberia’s first elected government after the end of the civil wars has certainly been making noise that curbing sexual violence is a priority. The government’s deputy minister of gender is part of a joint UN/government task force on sexual violence. and women are more represented in the government than most places in West Africa.

    Although awareness is rising, the statistical reality is that rape has remained the most reported crime throughout the Johnson-Sirleaf administration. This may offer some hope because at least it’s getting reported – hopefully a first step to addressing it and dealing with the attitudes and conditions that sexual violence needs to flourish. As far as prosecutions go, policing and justice are a problem for all crime in Liberia, particularly rape.

    Here are a few billboards related to rape/violence against women in Liberia:






  16. Dear AH–thanks for stopping by and leaving such an informed comment, and for confirming my hunch (at least in the case of Liberia.) Women heads of state may be more likely than men to prioritize women’s rights, but they’re not necessarily more effective in getting the job done.


  17. Hi all,
    Just came across this accidently. I’m very glad I did. I’m about to enter my final year of my history degree and am considering doing my dissertation on prostitution and/or forced sex during WW2.
    If anyone has the name of books, websites etc I would be very grateful. I would prefer to focus on Europe, though I have been finding quite a lot on ‘the comfort women’ (hate that phrase…they were forced) for the Japanese soldiers.
    Any info would be greatly appreciated. You can email me at: ainemaread@hotmail.com
    Thank you,


  18. Aine, thanks for stopping by to comment. I know there was a young recent Ph.D. who wrote a dissertation on sex workers in Japan and their relationship with American soldiers during WWII and in occupied Japan, although I forget her name. I’m sure a WorldCat dissertation search will reveal all!

    You might also take a look at the program for the 2008 Berkshire Conference. (Look in the left-hand blogroll for the links to the Berkshire Conference and the program.) We had a number of panels on war, torture, sexuality, and gender–do searches on war, torture, and World War II to get the names of people doing research in those fields right now. They’ll be the scholars who can best advise you, once you’ve done your due diligence!


  19. I am looking for good sources regarding rape (by either side) during the American Revolutionary War. This was prompted by a discussion on a reenactor web-list which is predominantly male. I am one of the smaller number of vocal women on the list. A male poster (and military by trade) contended that it was so rare as to have been nearly non-existent. I am not one to sit quietly by, but know I need to marshal documentation before I comment. I cannot believe he is right.


  20. Chris–rape was a part of the Revolution, although as you can imagine, American sources were much more eager to document atrocities committed by the invading/occupying British army than by pro-independence American forces.

    Sharon Block wrote about rape in the Revolutionary war in her book, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America. She also had an article in the Journal of American History on rape in the Revolution, although that article focused more on literary and journalistic representations of rape than on documenting the scope and extent to which rape was a part of that war. Her book is at Amazon and all of the usual on-line places, but if you have access to a university library, it will probably have a copy you can peek at for free.


  21. Pingback: No more photos from Abu Ghraib because of rape scenes? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  22. A question, really. I’m researching rape in Native American culture. Specifically, pre-contact. I want to know how small groups, (40-50) of clansmen would have reacted to a rape within their group and how such conflicts might have been resolved. I’d appreciate it if you could refer me to some sources.



  23. Hey thanks for writing so well about this. I’ve read some awfully bigoted articles about the rape of German and European women post WWII that tarnish this subject further by associating the idea of that war rape is wrong with the suggestion that its unique to black or Jewish or whatever racial category. It isn’t. War rape is a despicable part of our Euro history. I believe it comes from all the empire builders of the past (Rome, Greece) who, beyond luring men to war with promises of forcing themselves on foreign women at will, also entwined the ideas of freedom, self determination and property ownership. Hence the empire was supreme, because it owned the most land, but any person that could get a bit of territory just for them was granted a similar status of being in absolute charge of that space… A mini-emperor, if you will. Eventually it became clear that the only way to get large amounts of people on board was to allow them to declare that kind if autocracy over their partners and family, in the absence of land; that way they could be ‘happy’ and play king of the castle even when poor. Why men were favored in this arrangement is clear: they were needed to keep fighting and expanding the empire. Hence women everywhere, in every nation devoured by an empire, became symbolic landscapes to be commandeered and plundered, to reassure these men they were free and autonomous. It’s a parasitic arrangement really, very sad for both genders and sadder still to see shades of it in nearly every heterosexual relationship tradition today. Makes me shudder to think: if these ideas are that persistent then what would happen in the next western war? Have we really made it out of that patriarchal way of relating yet? I’m not sure at all…
    What a long post… I only meant to write a paragraph haha… Keep up the work! It’s great.


  24. I also forgot to ask if you know of any articles referring to what if any attitudes American women had towards the rape of European women in WWII… E.g propaganda about it they may have read, articles in time magazine and women’s magazines, etc. I too am writing an article about this period and any references you can share will help a lot. Cheers!


  25. Alex–thanks for your comments. I don’t know much about the modern literature of warfare and rape, but I can recommend quite highly Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do, which is a study of American G.I.s during the liberation of France and the ways in which sex with French women was sold as part of the experience. She also has some brilliant chapters on the rape of civilian women, and the very differential rates of prosecution and execution for black vs. white G.I.s, so those chapters might help you out.

    Roberts has written a little about the experience of writing a book about “The Good War” that doesn’t always cast the American military and its fighting men in a positive light. She still gets a lot of hate mail accusing her (ironically) of a “stab in the back” & of tarnishing the Normandy invasion. For more on this, see the big forum on the book that the Journal of Women’s History ran in their most recent issue (Fall 2014, I tihnk?)


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