Male Rape: the Secret Weapon of War

It remains one of the most secretive weapons of war – one that is swept under the carpet like offending dust because so few will address it. Yet, from time to time, someone dares to confront that hidden dirt.

“My husband can’t have sex,” a woman complained to Eunice Owiny, a counsellor for Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project (RLP). “He feels very bad about this. I’m sure there’s something he’s keeping from me.”

Owiny told the Guardian that the husband finally confided: “It happened to me. Mama Eunice, I am in pain. I have to use this.” He reached into his pocket, and showed her a pus-covered sanitary pad.

During his escape from the civil war in Congo, rebels had separated him from his wife. His captors raped him – three times a day – every day for three years. He watched as man after man was taken and raped daily – one of whom died in front of him from extensive injuries caused by rape.

It is not uncommon for such victims to be aggrieved with lifelong injuries. Some still experience bleeding when walking or sitting, and often have to restrict their diet to soft foods, which are sometimes costly commodities in such parts of the world.

Male-on-male rape remains one of the last remaining taboos; the victim is often unwilling to speak out about it due to humiliation and mislabelled idealisations of machismo. This veil of silence inadvertently protects the perpetrator – even more so in patriarchal societies.

Dr. Brock Chisholm is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and a board member of Survivors UK, the leading British charity that helps male victims of sexual abuse. He is also the founder of Trauma Treatment International, an organisation that helps victims of extreme forms of trauma such as torture, rape, trafficking, and slavery. He has provided crucial and expert witness testimonies in many high profile human rights violation cases all over the world.

“There is the rape which is not too dissimilar to the way females are raped. But male rape as a weapon of war also happens in a number of different settings, which comes under the general approach of using humiliation techniques,” he explained.

“Sometimes it can occur with instruments. For instance, bottles, sticks, and other devices were used in Syrian torture chambers under Assad’s rule. Saddam Hussein also adopted similar methods to brutalise prisoners. You also see the use of so-called searches of the anal cavity, which are unnecessary but take place frequently. It is done under the guise of safety but the real reason is to inflict a sense of humiliation. And then there are instances like the forced “rectal feeding” on prisoners on hunger strikes.”

Men are sometimes also forced into other forms of degradations like participating in sexual acts with other males, or having their genitals exposed to fire or other dangerous substances.

The world shuddered in disbelief when photos surfaced in 2003 showing detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison being physically and sexually abused by the US Army. And in Europe, the Greek Coast Guard has also come under heavy criticism when allegations of rape and torture of asylum seekers surfaced.

Dr. Chisholm confirms that such enforced nakedness and sexual violation is still employed in torture techniques by Western governments.

“I have personally worked in cases where it was used by the CIA against terrorists, who were later found to be completely innocent. I have worked in cases where civilians said that British and American soldiers had raped them. The government will say that it didn’t happen or that they investigated the matter but could not find sufficient evidence. It is actually far more common than what is reported”

In places like the Middle East or Africa, the stigma of male rape carries certain cultural and societal confines. Some cultures still maintain the belief that suicide is more preferable than being raped. A greater percentage of rape victims suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is also linked to a high rate of suicide.

“PTSD is a disorder of the memory following any traumatic event where someone’s life was placed at risk or if there were other serious implications such as rape. People will re-experience the memory in the present and not in the past (as is normal with other autobiographical memories). This means that they will see it, and feel the same sensations in their body and mind as though the event is happening all over again in the now,” Dr. Chisholm expounded.

“PTSD sufferers will take active steps to avoid being triggered, so they might avoid sounds, smells, places, and any events that could provoke a PTSD response. The urge in their brain is to instinctively hide away from any reminders that may cause them to relive the trauma as if it was happening again in the present. It can become a never-ending hell in their mind if they constantly relive the experience, and feel like they have little control over it. Unfortunately, there is often not enough support for those who suffer from PTSD. For instance, when I worked at the clinic in London, there was a two year waiting list to get help for PTSD.”

Since very few speak up about these crimes, perpetrators continue to get away and it is the victims who are burdened with the guilt instead.  That much-needed change will not be forthcoming – unless the degenerate taboo is challenged and de-stigmatised.