Rowman and Littlefield International

Wartime Sexual Violence Against Men: The Hidden Face of Warfare


Published on Wednesday 28 Nov 2018 by Élise Féron (Tampere Peace Research Institute)

On the 5th of October 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”, according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee announcement. No longer described as a corollary of war, wartime sexual violence is now rightly understood to be a significant feature of many contemporary conflicts and wars. It is among the most studied types of violence, and lies at the core of numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, and of thousands of NGO reports and academic publications. It also constitutes the main area of ​​intervention of thousands of humanitarian organizations active in war zones. However, agreeing upon what wartime sexual violence exactly is, and who are its targets and its perpetrators, is not as easy as it seems, especially when it is men who are targeted. When talking about wartime sexual violence, it is primarily images of raped women and girls, of female victims of sexual slavery, of forced pregnancies or abortions, that come to mind. But what about men who are victims of forced circumcision or forced marriage, of castration, of cigarette burns or of acid poured on the genitals?

Most discourses on conflict-related sexual violence still tend to rely on simplistic assumptions regarding the roles played by men and women during conflicts. Even though researchers have long established the active role that women can play during wars, especially as combatants, dominant representations almost systematically assign the status of victims to women, while men are assumed to be perpetrators. It is undoubtedly with regards to sexual violence that these representations are the most dominant, and the vast majority of publications and public policies relating to wartime sexual violence focus on women as victims. While women and girls make up, without a doubt, the majority of victims of this type of violence, empirical evidence collected in recent years suggests that in conflict zones such as Syria or Eastern Congo, men make up about a third of all victims of sexual violence.

An ancient and widespread phenomenon

Since the mid-1990s, an increasing number of NGO reports, as well as of academic publications, have drawn attention to the fact that men can be victims of sexual violence too, without generating much echo at the political and media level. Statistics published in 2012 by the US Department of Defense have for instance shown that 54% of victims of sexual violence in the US military were men, and a study conducted by a team of medical doctors in eastern Congo in 2010 established that nearly a quarter of men and boys living in the region had been victims of conflict-related sexual violence. Historical research also suggests that this type of violence is as old as war itself. In Ancient Greece, when enemy fighters were captured, it was not unusual for them to be used as sex slaves. During the Antiquity, in China, Persia, Egypt, or in northern Europe, captured enemies were often castrated, their penises cut off and exposed. In many pre-Columbian societies such as the Aztecs in Central America, or Native American tribes, raping captured combatants was considered to be an effective method for intimidating and enforcing domination on enemies. Prisoners were also often castrated, sometimes before being killed. The wars and genocides of the 20th century abound with similar examples. During the Armenian Genocide, among many other examples, many men were castrated, forced to walk naked, or circumcised after being forced to convert to Islam. Another famous case is that of “Rape of Nanking” in 1937, during which Chinese men were notably raped and forced to rape each other in front of Japanese soldiers.

What these various examples underscore is the fact that wartime sexual violence against men is by no means exceptional, and that it has been a regular occurrence in wars since (at least) the Antiquity. Today, conflict-related sexual violence against men is perpetrated by soldiers, police officers, members of intelligence services, as well as members of armed groups involved in civil wars, ethnic conflicts, interstate conflicts, genocide, and so on. It is impossible to offer here a complete description of all the known cases, but some examples seem to stand out. In Bosnia, for example, a study of 6,000 detainees in concentration camps in Sarajevo during the 1992-95 war found that 80 per cent of male prisoners were raped. Many cases of castration, of mutilation of sexual organs, of sexual humiliation, of forced fellatio, of enforced rape (male prisoners forced to rape other prisoners, both men and women), have been documented by the UN in Bosnia. In Liberia, an estimated one-third of adult male ex-combatants have been sexually abused. Many cases have also been documented in Sierra Leone, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Northern Ireland, Israel / Palestine, Algeria, Iran, Kuwait, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Sudan and South Sudan, Central African Republic, Burundi, Rwanda, DRC, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and this list is far from exhaustive.

It should be emphasized that while sexual violence against men is sometimes committed during or after raids on villages, it often takes place in the specific context of detention, where it is used to extort confessions, to demoralize or to crush an opponent. In some cases, sexual torture appears to have been used almost routinely by State security forces. In El Salvador for example, a survey established that 76 per cent of the political prisoners detained in La Esperanza had been sexually abused by prison guards or interrogators, with a predominance of cases of forced nudity, of beatings of the genitals, and of rape or threats of rape. Among other famous examples, cases of sexual torture perpetrated against male prisoners held in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo stand out.

Why is wartime sexual violence against men underestimated?

A number of factors explain that these cases and figures have not attracted more media attention, or led to a shift in existing public policies.

First, most of the literature on conflicts and wars still focuses on other forms of violence men are victims of, primarily killings and injuries, rather than on other types of violence, such as forced displacement or sexual violence. Sexual violence, usually understood as affecting primarily if not uniquely women and girls, is often treated as a separate issue – if not in a separate book, at least in a separate chapter. In addition, because the characteristics of wartime sexual violence against men differ from what we know about sexual violence against women, we tend to not consider it as such – men are for instance less likely to be raped or to be subjected to sexual slavery, but more likely to be victims of mutilation and of sexual torture.

Second, empirical data on wartime sexual violence against men is extremely difficult to collect because of the taboos surrounding the issue. Of course, sexual violence against women and girls is taboo too, but recent research has shown that men tend to report these acts even less than women do. Most male victims are too ashamed to ask for help, and prefer to endure their suffering alone, sometimes with fatal consequences. During the fieldwork I conducted in the Great Lakes Region of Africa for instance, the medical staff I met explained that men who are victims of sexual violence do not come for treatment unless they really have no other choice, for example if the wounds are severely infected. Sometimes they wait so long before asking for help that it is impossible to save them. Many of them also face further physical problems that exacerbate their feelings of shame, such as sexual impotence or urinary incontinence. Because of underreporting, the issue has thus been, and still is, seriously underestimated.

Third and perhaps most importantly, conflict-related sexual violence is generally not coded in the same way when victims are men, and when they are women. When it is perpetrated against men, international penal tribunals or transitional justice courts tend to describe it as torture or as inhuman treatment, rather than as sexual violence. In 2012 for example, in the case Prosecutor vs. Kenyatta, the International Criminal Court has classified and condemned acts of forced circumcision and sexual mutilation against men as “other inhumane acts”. In other cases, acts of sexual violence against men are mentioned but not condemned as such, or not condemned at all. It also appears that courts tend to use different labels according to the gender of the victims. In Bosnia, for example, similar cases of forced oral sex were described as rape when the victims were women, and an “outrage against [the prisoners’] dignity” when the victims were men. In addition, the fact that not all legal definitions of sexual violence are gender inclusive does not help. Many countries still do not recognize that men can be victims of rape, and use very restrictive definitions of the notion of sexual violence, for example limited to cases of rape, thus excluding many cases of sexual violence (against both women and men).

Labelling wartime sexual violence “torture” or “inhumane act” when victims are male, and “sexual violence” when victims are female, has important consequences. The concept of “torture” has, especially in war zones, a strong political connotation. Torture is used to obtain confessions, or to break the resistance of political opponents. Surviving torture, or not cracking under torture, is considered honorable for the communities to which the survivors belong. It is, however, the opposite when it comes to sexual violence. If sexual violence is also associated to the notion of honor, it is only because it is supposed to bring shame and dishonor to the victims. To say that somebody has survived sexual violence, or acts of torture, therefore has biological and bodily connotations in the former case, and political ones in the latter. In other words, one is likely to be considered a “victim” in the first case, and a “resistant” in the other. These representations thus build on, and maintain, the image of passivity traditionally associated with women during wars, while men, even tortured, are considered as fighters whose honor remains intact.

Addressing sexual violence against men in war zones

The fact that many believe that sexual violence in war zones affects mostly, if not only, women and girls has important consequences in practical terms. Most humanitarian organizations focus solely on female victims, and their brochures and information campaigns only represent women and girls, which de facto ostracizes men. Over the past few years, some organizations such as Médecins sans Frontières have made an effort to open structures accommodating male survivors too, but these structures remain the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the lack of training and preparation of medical staff and health professionals, who expect to treat only women and girls, increases the risks for male victims. Medical personnel are not trained to detect, identify and treat injuries resulting from such violence on men. Even in zones of intense conflict, where cases of sexual violence are numerous, the medical personnel is often unaware of these issues, particularly in rural areas.

It is also common for male survivors who seek help to be referred to gynecology services. This creates obvious problems for male survivors, but also for female survivors who are treated there, and who might not want to share that space with men. In addition, the care staff in the gynecology departments is often predominantly female, which creates additional issues for many male victims who often refuse to confide in women. And even in services open to male victims, the common assumption is that their symptoms and needs are almost identical to those of female victims, which is not true.

The equation that is made between women and victims of sexual violence reinforces the shame felt by male survivors, and the feeling that they have of having been “feminized”, “turned into women” or “homosexualized”, to quote some of the words used by the male survivors I have met. In order to understand these feelings, it is important to understand that feminization is often used at the social and political level to produce and / or to justify a relationship of domination, and that it can be exercised on both men and women. Among all the feminization mechanisms at the disposal of combatants during war, sexual violence occupies a choice place. What is particularly interesting in the effect produced by sexual violence is that while it provokes the victims’ feeling of feminization and subjugation, it also induces the perpetrators’ feeling of masculinization and empowerment, regardless of the victims’ and/or perpetrators’ gender. This is one of the main reasons why it is almost impossible for male survivors to ask for help or to report these acts, because complaining would reinforce the feminization they already experience, by forcing them to adopt the victim’s status that is usually reserved for women.

Silencing cases of conflict-related sexual violence against men, and focusing narratives about women in war on sexual violence are two sides of the same coin. Just like men can be, and indeed often are, victims of sexual violence, women are victims of other types of violence during conflicts. The problem is that even when a woman is for instance subjected to various forms of torture while in detention, attention is usually focused on this torture’s potential sexual component, even if it made up only a tiny part of what she has had to go through. Conversely, when it comes to men’s experiences of war, everything but sexual violence is worthy of attention, such as (non-sexual) torture, amputations, imprisonment, etc. Thus, men’s experience of violence is desexualized, while that of women is depoliticized.

In short, the wider recognition of, and response to, the suffering induced by wartime sexual violence against men is impeded at the international level by gendered representations that associate men with power, strength and, especially when the developing world is concerned, violence. Silencing male survivors’ stories results in the strengthening of patriarchal discourses, and should therefore be considered as counterproductive by those who are fighting for women’s rights. Pretending that wartime sexual violence against men does not exist, or that it is anecdotal since “women make up the vast majority of victims” is playing into the hands of patriarchy because it buttresses existing gender representations. In other words, far from helping to improve women’s situation, the representation of wartime sexual violence as a plight affecting only women is ultimately highly detrimental to feminists’ objectives, because it reinforces the link between masculinity, power and invulnerability. It further feminizes conflict-related sexual violence, trauma and vulnerability, paradoxically resulting in a heightened vulnerability of women, and in a reluctance on the part of male victims to seek physical and mental health support.

Finally, it is important to re-emphasize that sexual violence is not a corollary or a by-product of war. The victims’ as well as the perpetrators’ identities, or the places in which sexual violence is committed, show that this type of violence is intrinsically linked to broader conflict dynamics, be they political, ethnic, religious, or socio-economic. As a result, it is urgent to take stock of recent advances in feminist studies, and to start considering that rather than the sex of the victim or even of the perpetrator, one should take seriously the performativity of sexual violence, for both perpetrators and victims. That the victim is a man or a woman is less important than the meaning that sexual violence intends to convey, that is a super/subordination relation which is also related to broader—e.g. economic, political, racial, caste, cultural—relations of power. “Queering” theoretical approaches to conflict-related sexual violence by going beyond the gender binary is crucial to avoid reproducing the limits and shortcomings of previous theoretical models. In other words, an “add men and stir” recipe is unlikely to provide satisfactory answers. Of course, this has to be done carefully so that attention and funding do not drift away from female survivors. But a drastic change in how we frame and understand wartime sexual violence is needed, and long overdue.


About Élise Féron

Élise Féron is a senior researcher at the Tampere Peace Research Institute.