In the bus, in your office canteen, and in way too many classrooms. Rape survivors are everywhere, and we cross them every day – usually without knowing what they’ve experienced. Rates differ per country, but statistics from the US give an impression of how many people experience rape at some point in their lives: 1 in 6 American women are rape survivors, and 1 in 33 American men. Given that rape is cloaked in taboo, especially in conservative societies, underreporting of rape is a big problem. The consequences of rape can be far-reaching, on both a physical, psychological, and psychosexual level. Norms around gender and sexuality play a major role in how rape is perpetrated, defined, and prosecuted globally. In this entry, we unpack this deeply gendered crime called rape. We look specifically at rape as a weapon of war and at the rape of men and LGBTQIA+Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Trans (T), Queer (Q), Intersex (I), Asexual (A), + denotes an umbrella term used by 'marginalized sexual and gender diverse people whose gender, gender expression, or sexual identity do not conform to cis-gender or hetero-dominant gender identity'. This acronym is intersectional by virtue of its nature as well as non-exhaustive and inclusive (as denoted by the +). Over the years, the + has been understood as encompassing Questioning (Q), Two-spirit (TS), or Pansexual (P). In other words, this term represents fluid (non-conforming) notions of gender identity and sexual orientation supposedly transgressing the binary constructs of our society (male v. female and heterosexual v. homosexual).× close persons, since these are illustrative of the gendered nature of rape.

Two well-known examples of rape as a weapon of war date from World War II, when soldiers from the Japanese army raped large numbers of individuals in conquered territories, and Russian soldiers committed mass rape against German women. These acts are often explained as the consequence of ‘sexual deprivation’ by soldiers who, after months of fighting in dire consequences, crave sex and need to take off their trauma and frustration. Such explanations risk justifying rape as an inevitable outcome of being involuntarily celibate under highly stressful circumstances, erasing the individual responsibility of perpetrators and obscuring the fact that rape serves as a way to terrorise and demoralise the enemy. Or as a bonding activity for militaries or a way to reward them – both in turn serving military ends.

Rape of enemy populations can also serve the purpose of ethnic cleansing, as in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Serbian soldiers systematically raped thousands of Bosnian Muslim women and girls, often in so-called ‘rape camps,’ with the goal of impregnating them and for them to birth children of Serbian ethnicity. The survivors, sometimes just twelve years old, were released only when pregnant and only after it was too late to abort the fetus. The last decade of the 20th century knew another instance of rape as a war tactic: HIV-infected men were recruited by the Hutu-led government in Rwanda to rape Tutsi women, as a way to spread the disease amongst the Tutsi ethnic group. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda decided that the mass rape of Tutsi women amounted to genocidal rape. In both Yugoslavia and Rwanda, we see how the reproductive capacities of those assigned female at birth subject them to rape. Indeed, women and girls are at a high risk of experiencing any form of sexual violence during conflicts and war. 

By no means, however, does that mean that people of other gender identities are not subjected to rape and assault in wartime. Man civilians and soldiers are raped, in an attempt to emasculate and, in turn, weaken them. Man survivors of rape face immense taboo and stigma in most societies. The prevalent view of rape as a feminising act, impairing survivors’ masculinity, means that man survivors are often ostracised, stigmatised, and left by their wives and family. There is no large scale data available on the rape of men, but anecdotal evidence from NGOs, activists and small-scale initiatives indicate that this problem is massive. The lack of attention and absence of funds, international legislation and policymaking for the prevention and response to the rape of men is simply astonishing and sickening, given its pervasiveness. Apparently, international governmental bodies and NGOs cannot get rid of the idea that victimhood is exclusively reserved for women. This blindness and ignorance leads to, for instance, Dutch Oxfam making funding for an NGO working with rape survivors conditional on 70% of survivors being women. In this light, it is all the more pressing that the Women, Peace & Security agenda as laid out in UNSCR 1325United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325.× close, is renamed to Gender, Peace & Security, with due recognition of sexual violence in conflict against men.

Whether in conflict settings or in peaceful societies, the rape of men remains a taboo. The notion that men rape and women are raped is so ingrained in certain societies, that in the UK for instance, the law defines rape solely as “the unconsented penis penetration of a vagina.” In other cases, the law simply does not recognise or protect men survivors. Whether understood as the antipodes of exalted versions of masculinity or a ‘taint of femininity,’ the stigma and biases surrounding it have dramatic consequences both theoretically and academically. The effects of these conceptualisations are two-fold. First, this construction inevitably leads to an invisibilisation of man victimhood where sexual violence against men seems not to exist or is understood as torture rather than, well, rape or sexual assault. Second, it heightens the sense of shame survivors feel, increases the distrust they face when reporting the crime, curtails their access to adequate medical and psychosexual care, and prevents the allocation of funding to create policies supporting survivors. All of this fashions a reality where rape or sexual violence against men is underresearched, underreported, and misunderstood. 

Whereas rape as a weapon of war against women tends to be used as a means to terrorise, humiliate, and destroy the social fabric of certain communities, sexual violence against men acts as a means to ‘emasculate’ or ‘castrate’ them. In this way, men are seen as emasculated through processes of ‘feminisation’ or ‘homosexualisation,’ where the sexual violence they suffer from devalorises them and strips them from their supposed manhood since women or men who enjoy having sex with men are seen as inferior. Here, rape becomes an act of power, dominance, and an assertion of one’s strength over another’s body unable to accomplish the one duty of a man; being impenetrable, strong, and able to protect oneself and his loved ones. In cases of ethnic conflict, this takes on another dimension where perpetrators don’t just rape men but they rape ‘ethnic’ men, thus empowering their ethnicity and devaluating the other through the penetrative act. 

However, defining the consequences of rape as emasculation, homosexualisation, or feminisation remains rooted in misogyny, homophobia (also assuming that all men are heterosexual – hello there, heteronormativity), and essentialist definitions of gender identities. This is why certain scholars talk rather about a ‘displacement from gendered personhood,’ where the displacement implies temporality and does not assume specific gender expectations, effectively accommodating the experiences of any survivor. These conceptualisations are far more adequate to talk about the realities of LGBTQ+ survivors. LGBTQ+ populations are more likely to experience sexual violence in their lifetime than straight people. In certain regions, rape is used against bi, lesbian, and trans women as a means to ‘correct’ their sexuality. These ‘women’s virtue campaigns’ are used to violently control women’s sexuality and are often coupled with forced marriage or honour killings. The combination of a taboo on reporting sexual violence and a stigma on queer identities leads to dire consequences for queer survivors who are often unable to speak out for fear of further persecution, to seek psycho-medical help, and to demand justice. Their realities tend to be neglected and forgotten. 

All in all, rape whether committed in times of peace or in war takes many shapes and forms, is rooted in different mechanisms and leads to various consequences for survivors. However, one thing is certain; rape is a crime, survivors should be heard irrespective of their identities and perpetrators should be prosecuted. Gendered conceptualisations should not prevent survivors from accessing justice, remedies, and support.