Male rape as an instrument of war

Monday, 07 April 2014 20:03
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by Nicolamaria Coppola
EPOS Insights


Since rape is commonly thought of as a sexual rather than a violent act, many people do not think of men as potential rape victims. Men and boys are all-too frequently subjected to sexual violence, particularly in times of conflict, forced confinement or war. The problem is persistent and global. For the most part, though, nobody wants to talk about it. Over the last few months, however, a handful of reports from West Africa show that rape and sexual violence are being used as a weapon against men and boys, as well as women and girls.

Sexual violence against men and boys, though common, is little understood or studied. One notable exception is the work of Lara Stemple who looks at the phenomenon of male rape through the prism of international human rights. Lara Stemple is the Director of Graduate Studies at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) School of Law. Stemple's research and advocacy interests focus on human rights, sexual violence, HIV/AIDS, and prisons.

Though females are certainly more likely to be raped in conflict, she finds, males comprise a "sizable minority" of victims. There are documented cases in conflicts in Chile, Greece, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other places, too. At a torture treatment center in London, 21% of Sri Lankan Tamil males said they had experienced sexual abuse during the war, she notes. One study of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia found that 80% of the 6,000 inmates at a prison camp in Sarajevo reported rape.

Male rape shares something with female rape: it is not about sex, but about power and degradation, about violence in which sex is the weapon. Psychologists identify several causes: a desire for conquest and control; revenge and retaliation; and what is called “conflict and counteraction”, in which a rapist may punish his victim as a way of dealing with confusion about his own sexuality.

A. Nicholas Groth, a clinical psychologist and author of Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender (New York, 2001), says sexual desire or deprivation is not the primary motivating force behind sexual assault: "Sexual assault is the sexual expression of aggression, not the aggressive expression of sexuality", Groth explains. "It is not about sexual gratification. When a sexual assault happens, it is not because a man is sexually frustrated. What we are talking about is a man using somebody else as a means of saying 'I'm the one in control'. The defining element in rape is coercion as opposed to consent".

When most people think about male rape, they think about prisons and jails, counselors say. Groth claims: "People think that men who go to prison are going to get sexually frustrated because they have no opportunity for consenting sex. Yet what they don't look at is that people who engage in consenting sexual encounters, and they could masturbate or, in some states, take park in conjugal visits. Rape in prison – he points out - happens for the same reasons as does rape on the outside: it is an act of power and control and sometimes one of retaliation or revenge. But like other victims, prisoners are not very likely to report the crime".

Richie McMullen, author of the book Male Rape: Breaking the Silence on the Last Taboo (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1990),  believes the main causes has to do with negative aspects of power and aggression. "It is as though the offender is over-compensating for any other potential hurts to his already otherwise fragile masculinity. He must act out or externalise his fears in such a way as to be seen to be more dominant, more masculine, than he is in reality (…). Undefined and confused notions of what it means to be a masculine, powerful, dominant man echo through our culture like football chants".

In Uganda's Gulu district, located about 340 kilometers north of the country's capital Kampala, local people have always been soft targets, ever since the country gained independence in 1962. For 20 years the northern region of the country endured attacks by different rebel groups fighting against government forces. During that time, civilians were raped, abducted, forcibly conscripted into rebel groups, with hundreds forced to flee their homes for safety in refugee camps.

Chris Dolan, director of the Refugee Law Project, in an interview for Al-Jazeera explaines the numbers of men experiencing rape are much higher than anticipated. "We started talking to a handful of male survivors from one of the settlements and they started to meet up and now they have close to 60 members – all within the space of just three months. Similarly here in Kampala we have an association we started with six men and now it has around 70 members and those are only the ones that actually want to join the association. We have clients that do not want to go to our support group", Dolan states.

Male rape is here often associated with homosexuality, which in Uganda is condemned and stigmatised. Men also choose not to speak out for fear of being branded homosexuals, and victims cannot get proper support because they are accused of being gay.

In Syria, rape is being used by armed groups as a weapon of war. In this context, reports have emerged detailing the use of sexual violence by Syrian armed forces and paramilitaries loyal to Assad. Human Rights Watch has issued a report documenting sexual violence used by government agents in detention centres. Men, women and boys have reported rape, penetration with foreign objects, groping, forced nudity, and genital trauma while in the custody of the state. Witnesses and victims also told Human Rights Watch that soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas.

The stigma in Syria surrounding sexual violence makes victims reluctant to report abuse. Survivors also may face dangers when they make crimes public, and researchers have had limited access to the country to document abuses. In many cases interviewees told Human Rights Watch that victims did not want their families or others in the community to know about the assault because of fear or shame.

Detention facilities where male and female detainees have reported sexual torture include Military Intelligence Branch 248 and Branch 235 (known as "Palestine Branch") in Damascus; the Military Intelligence facilities in Jisr al-Shughur, Idlib, and Homs; the Political Security branch in Latakia; the Air Force Intelligence branches in Mezze, Latakia, and Homs; and the Idlib Central Prison.

Last modified on Monday, 14 April 2014 19:05
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