AS disturbing new reports of male rape in Congo made clear, wartime sexual violence isn’t limited to women and girls. But in its ongoing effort to eradicate rape during conflict, the United Nations continues to overlook a significant imperative: ending wartime sexual assault of men and boys as well.
Sexual violence against men does occasionally make the news: the photographs of the sexual abuse and humiliation of Iraqi men at the Abu Ghraib prison, for example, stunned the world.
Yet there are thousands of similar cases, less well publicized but well documented by researchers, in places as varied as Chile, Greece and Iran. The United Nations reported that out of 5,000 male concentration camp detainees held near Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict, 80 percent acknowledged having been abused sexually. In El Salvador, 76 percent of male political prisoners told researchers they had experienced sexual torture.
Rape has long been a way to humiliate, traumatize and silence the enemy. For many of the same reasons that combatants assault women and girls, they also rape men and boys.
Nevertheless, international legal documents routinely reflect the assumption that sexual violence happens only to women and girls. There are dozens of references to “violence against women” — defined to include sexual violence — in United Nations human rights resolutions, treaties and agreements, but most don’t mention sexual violence against men.
Ignoring male rape has a number of consequences. For one, it not only neglects men and boys, it also harms women and girls by reinforcing a viewpoint that equates “female” with “victim,” thus hampering our ability to see women as strong and empowered.
In the same way, silence about male victims reinforces unhealthy expectations about men and their supposed invulnerability. Such hyper-masculine ideals encourage aggressive behavior in men that is dangerous for the women and girls with whom they share their lives.
Sex-specific stereotypes also distort the international community’s response. Women who have suffered rape in conflict have likely endured non-sexual trauma as well. But when they are treated as “rape victims,” their other injuries get minimized.
Conversely, when men have experienced sexual abuse and are treated solely as “torture victims,” we ignore the sexual component of their suffering. Indeed, doctors and emergency aid workers are rarely trained to recognize the physical signs of male rape or to provide counseling to its victims.
One consequence of the neglect of male victims not mentioned in this article is that it perpetuates a false dichotomy that if women are the victims men must be the perpetrators. While I have no problem believing this is true in probabilistic terms, it is hard to know how strong that probability is given that analysts rarely consider the prevalence of female-perpetrated sexual violence in conflict zones.
One researcher who has – Dara Cohen – has found a significant number of female perpetrators – nearly a third – in her study of Sierra Leone (see the working paper linked to this site). And a study on the Congo published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found survey respondents reported women perpetrating rape in 41% of cases where the victim was female, and 10% of the cases where the victim was male.