Written by: Stewart Lawrence


The question of how central rape is to the conduct of war – and why – it is a matter of ongoing academic debate. Scholars may examine the same or similar evidence of sex-related crimes during wartime but still interpret it in vastly different ways. For example, Baaz (2009) makes a strong case that at least some rapes in the Congo – perhaps the majority are fueled by pent-up needs for sexual gratification by poor, disenfranchised soldiers – a thesis steadfastly rejected by Seifert (1993, pp. 55-57) and others who maintain that rape – especially in conflicts such as Bosnia — is part of a systematic war strategy whose practice is mostly unrelated to male sexual gratification needs.

According to this latter argument, men don’t rape for sex per se; they rape to humiliate and destroy their opponents psychologically and culturally to subjugate them semi-permanently, far beyond the period of active hostilities.

Could both of these arguments be true? In theory, perhaps, yes. Baaz does not discount the prevalence of other kinds of rape seemingly unrelated to sexual gratification, or at least with motives beyond mere sexual release. However, it is also possible that these analysts are drawing conclusions based on two different kinds of cases, using different underlying assumptions as well as different methods of inquiry.

For example, Baaz’s article is unique in that it is one of the few that has testimonies from soldiers – nearly 150 interviewed in groups – who tell in their own words their motives and methods of sexual violence. The soldiers distinguish between what they call “lust rape” and “evil rape.” They understand that both types are “transgressive.” Still, in their minds, they rationalize that lust rape derives from a quasi-biological necessity. In contrast, evil rape may begin as lust but can spin out of control and result in severe beatings, mutilations, and even murder.

Still, there’s no sense in these first-hand accounts that even evil rape has any real war-fighting “logic.” It is merely the sexual impulse of rape driven to extremes by a kind of hyper-aggression or war psychosis that is never quite explained (Baaz, pp. 511-512).

Those accounts hold a very different view (e.g., Diken & Lausten, 2009) that tend to focus on Bosnia where even the invading Serb leaders admitted that rape was a conscious weapon of war, indeed, as part of as a strategy of “ethnic cleansing” to destroy the Bosnians as a people. Serbians held Bosnian women in “rape camps,” where they deliberately tried to impregnate them to ensure that they carried their babies with Serbian fathers to term.

They also forced Bosnian family members to rape each other – including sons raping their mothers. Neither of these tactics appears to have been related to a desire for sexual gratification on the part of the soldiers, though sex, in the rape camps, for example, was involved.

There is a strong feminist undercurrent in some of the readings, which suggests that war rape is just an extension of rape during peacetime – with fewer scruples and harsher effects. In a testimony before the US Congress (2009), Eve Ensler goes so far as to establish a broad continuum that takes the listener from the manicured lawns and relative peace of student dormitories to the wild grasslands and blood-stained huts of African villages. It seems like an enormous stretch and contrasts sharply with those who insist that analyses of rape and war gear to specific conflict settings and carefully contextualized (e.g., Seifert, p. 57).

Despite this methodological warning, there appears to be a deliberate attempt on the part of many rape writers to conflate all of the cases to arrive at a general theory of rape and war. A closer look at the African trials, for example, might distinguish the Congo from the Rwanda case – the latter involving an ethnic cleansing campaign (between Tutsi and Hutus) that might rival the Serbian-Bosnian one. It could be that rape was practiced in Rwanda on a systematic scale – with some estimates as high as 500,000 women raped – to eliminate ethnic rivalry.

Arguably, it may be difficult for some writers to be analytically precise when the subject is so horrific. Still, even within Africa, writers might avoid sweeping generalizations that could too easily fall into racial stereotyping about “oversexed” and, therefore, naturally “hyper-aggressive” African males. Simply put, the Congo, Liberia, and Rwanda are distinct “cases,” as such, legal experts should analyze them differently.

There is in the literature at least one prevalent theme: how war and rape tend to foster the construction of “masculinity” and preserve a social order based on “patriarchy” (Baaz, pp. 507-508; Seifert, pp. 59-61). Whether it is Congolese soldiers seeking to recover a sense of lost male sexual power, or Serbians constructing fiercely nationalistic manhood – and punishing perceived “weaklings” with moral qualms about their brother rapists – writers are suggesting that mainly when operating collectively, rape is inevitably a powerful weapon wielded by men against women, and taps into deep-seated gender inequalities and ambitions for male dominance.

Here again, though, better ethnographic research among Serbian soldier rapists might help clarify the psychological and normative differences and similarities between Congolese and Serbian perpetrators. Did their leaders’ systematic war rape policy tend to absolve war-fighters of more profound feelings of guilt for their actions? Or did the presence of Western powers and influences constrain them from conducting rape on an even larger scale?

And what of the women and the construction of “femininity”? Most of the literature is surprisingly silent on this score, implying, it seems, that male supremacy inevitably means female victimization and a return to individual and collective quiescence – what Diken & Lausten refer to as the “abject” state.

Intriguingly, Utas (2005) strongly suggests otherwise, in two critical ways. First, he establishes a continuum for understanding women’s presence in war zones. Women may be humanitarian victims, or they may participate in the war as soldiers; they may also become love interests or girlfriends of male fighters. In other words, women are not merely passive recipients of potent influence, even in highly masculine and aggressive war settings, he suggests.

He notes that the rape of female soldiers is rare and uniquely transgressive; it can lead to the offending party’s death. Women, it seems, can empower themselves within the context of war, a view opposed to that of radical feminists like Ensler. The latter view all war activity as brutally and depressingly disempowering for women across the board.

In all of these studies, it would help if women – both soldiers and civilians- were interviewed systematically for their views on the threat and reality of sexual violence in wartime. Were some women able to negotiate their way out of being targeted or victimized? Baaz assumes that female soldiers never acted as a constraining influence on their brothers in arms. However, she only asks the men about their feelings about women in the armed forces, and to her surprise, she finds that they only saw them as possible sex partners, obviating the need for rape. Why were sexual relationships among soldiers seemingly so infrequent, if the opportunities for them existed?

Another issue that arises in the literature is whether the extent of rape may be exaggerated – mainly for political effect. For example, for all the talk of “rape camps” and other expressions of rape as a tool of systematic warfare, about 20,000 Bosnian women were estimated to have been raped, a horrific number in the absolute but still far less than the rape figures determined for conflicts outside of Europe (by a factor of ten or more, in fact.).

Utas (2005) provides strong evidence that women in war zones are aware of the political value of dramatizing the rape issue. In some cases, every woman in a war zone claims rape – a practical impossibility – but one whose veracity none can challenge. Crying rape, it seems, does occur, even in the context of mass rape, which only seems to make those false claims all the more believable.

The specter of mass rape also has an immense psychological value. People use rape to mobilize a nation to war. Paradoxically, it appears that the Serbs used the specter of rape by Muslims to fuel Serbian nationalist unity, and indeed, to prepare the Serb soldiers to inflict the punishment of rape on Bosnians (Diken & Lausten, pp. 114-15). Were the Bosnians made to rape the Serb women? There was no actual evidence of that, and indeed, none of the wartime reporting has found tales of Bosnian sexual violence.

It seems to have been just a mass propaganda campaign—drawing on images of Muslim enslavement of White Christians during the Crusades – rather than any political intelligence. Disturbingly, it allowed the Serbs to portray their rape war strategy as possibly “defensive” in nature.

There’s no question that rape represents an unusually severe and far-reaching form of torture and abuse during wartime. After World War II, following the revelations of mass rape in Nazi Germany and the Japanese against the Chinese in Nanking, the Western world decided to add a separate Geneva Convention on rape, declaring it a war crime. That said, there is some question as to whether elevating rape to this level does justice to the wide-ranging forms of barbarity practiced during wartime, which, in the final analysis, seem to transcend gender altogether.

Women experience rape, and their inner sanctity and the sacredness of their wombs forever scarred, as radical feminists like Seifert (1993) and Diken & Luasten (2005) argue compellingly. However, the vast majority of these women do manage to survive, and though deeply traumatized, most heal as best they can. That’s not true of the untold millions subjected to brutal tortures of another kind – mutilated, limbs amputated, set on fire, subject to cruel chemical and biological warfare attacks –much less those slaughtered en masse, without remorse, and with total impunity.

The point is not to compare forms of abuse or to minimize the disturbing consequences of war rape – but to lend some perspective on the utter inhumanity of modern war. The sad fact is that despite strong international legal prohibitions on various kinds of conduct during war, the parties to conflicts rarely show much restraint when they perceive their fundamental interests are a stake. The nature of war has shifted, from conventional battles between regular armies, toward various kinds of irregular engagements in which control over the civilian population – not only its political and ideological allegiance but its capacity to assist insurgent armies with food, tactical intelligence, and fresh recruits — is the most valuable prize to be won in the context of modern war’s ever-shifting boundaries and tempo.

Rape strikes even more deeply at the heart of a vulnerable people’s support system – it’s family and cultural life. In this sense, rape on a mass scale and as a conscious war-fighting tool could well be a form of genocide.

The fact that barbarity on this scale – and this intent — seems to have reached it pinnacle expression in the heart of “civilized” Europe should disabuse all observers of the notion that mass cruelty and abuse is the preserve of “primitive” societies with weak human rights norms and low levels of “political institutionalization.” As more and more of the post-World War II state system seems to break apart — and the world becomes subject to a kind of political entropy in which states seek to reconstitute themselves based on new national identities or collapse, leaving all of civil society at the mercy of warring combatants — mass rape, by impulse, or by design, is likely to become an ever-increasing and ever-disturbing part of our global landscape.

In the final analysis, is organized patriarchy the problem – or is it merely anarchy, the coming apart of moral rules and boundaries in which all men, women, and children – unarmed and unprotected — are left to fend for themselves?



Baaz, M.E. (2009). Who do soldiers rape? Masculinity, violence and sexuality in the Armed Forces of the Congo. International Studies Quarterly, 53: 495-518.

Diken, B., & Lausten, C.B. (2005). Becoming abject: Rape as a weapon of war. Body &
Society, 11: 111.

Ensler, E. (2009, May 13). Confronting rape and other forms of violence against women in conflict zones. Testimony before the US Senate foreign relations subcommittee on African affairs.

Seifert, R. (1993). War and rape: A preliminary analysis, in War and rape: Analytical
approaches, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 61-71.

Utas, M. (2005). West-African warscapes: Victimcy, girlfriending, soldiering: Tactic agency in a young woman’s social navigation of the Liberian war zone. Anthropological Quarterly, 78(2): 403-430.