Which constructs of masculinities and masculinity can contribute to explanation of rape?
Rape, regardless of the age, race or gender of the victim or perpetrator, be it in time of peace or war, is a deeply invasive and traumatising experience. To determine the extent to which constructs of masculinities and masculinity can contribute to explanation of rape, we must clarify several points. To begin with, we must understand factors of rape in the context of war, so that we may draw comparisons, as there are some features within this particular phenomena that do not necessarily apply to the act of rape in a peacetime society. However, these characteristics are usually connected to the fact that warfare is being conducted, and so can be extracted from the equation fairly easily.
Secondly, we must make clear the features of both the constructs of masculinity proposed by Connell (1987, 1995) and the concept of ‘accomplishing masculinity’ or ‘doing gender’. Research into the latter has been mainly theoretical and qualitative (West and Zimmerman, 1987; Messerschmidt, 1993, Archer, 1994:121) but it would be fair to argue that a strong theory has been produced. Both of these need to be understood in terms of the extent of their relationship between them and how they relate to the appalling act of rape.
In terms of distinguishing between the concept of ‘masculinity’ and ‘masculinities’, we first look to Connell’s (1987) typology of masculinities. The concept of hegemonic masculinity in particular, has had considerable influence on the way gender and power relations are viewed, and uses have been found for it in a number of fields ranging from counselling to antiviolence.
In the early 1970s, Patricia Sexton argued that ‘male norms stress values such as courage… certain forms of aggression, autonomy… adventure and considerable amounts of toughness’ (cited in Donaldson, 1993: 644). This spurred the fusion of the concepts of hegemony with Sexton’s insightful observation. Hegemony itself is traditionally defined as the obtaining and holding of power whilst simultaneously dismantling other social groups. It involves the convincing of the masses that hegemonic beings have power over subordinate groups and, what’s more, that this is the norm. Hegemonic masculinity is constructed as the dominant form of masculinity in any given society. The identifying characteristics are heterosexuality and homophobia – in fact it is opposed to any other variant of masculinity and femininity. By viewing hegemonic masculinity as the central structure in society, Connell was able to suggest a number of masculinities who exist in opposition to it, but who also only exist because of it. Subordinated masculinities are those which do not fall within the remit of the beliefs and values of hegemony, and so have been suppressed into submission by the dominant construct. This group includes females and homosexuals (among others).
The next masculinity is labelled ‘marginalised’. This includes groups that are stigmatised in society such as ethnic minorities or those of a different class – usually lower (Donaldson, 1993). They may share features of hegemonic masculinity but their status as a stigmatised group denies them access.
Finally, there are those masculinities which are accepting of the patriarchal attitude of hegemony, but are not militant in their attitudes. These are termed complicit masculinities. Masculinities that are typically hegemonic see it as their job to defend their positions of power against the threat of the ‘other’ – the construct however, is so exclusive that any other group is considered an ‘other’, and is therefore a threat. There are accounts that will be expanded on later in this essay showing that hegemonic masculinity can and will resort to violent acts of dehumanisation in order to exaggerate the difference between them and the ‘other’. As a social construct, it has been asserted by Donaldson (1993) that there are certain groups in charge of creating and maintaining the image of hegemonic masculinity. These figures include members of the clergy, academics and journalists. This public image is then supported by men because it benefits them to perpetuate an image that brings them power.
Hegemonic masculinity is thought to oppress women in several ways. Donaldson (1993) asserted that females exist purely as an object of sexual pleasure for hegemonic masculinities. Not only this, but this construct as it is proposed by Connell (1987), involves a very specific strategy for the domination of women. Radical feminists such as the late Andrea Dworkin (1987) have suggested that all women are subjugated under male power and furthermore, that all heterosexual relations have the potential to be exploitative of women. Crime against women then, has been explained by Walklate (1995) and Messerschmidt (1993) as a situational enactment of hegemonic masculinity, in which man reinforces his dominance of woman through the medium of violence.
In terms of ‘doing gender’ and the accomplishment of masculinity, we must first look to West and Zimmerman (1987), who proposed that gender is a routine accomplishment that is maintained daily. It is theorised that through socialisation, men learn how to express their masculinity appropriately and this reoccurs daily. Miedzian (1991) proposes that the purpose of this is the assertion of power and dominance over subordinates. Thus, male violence can be used to support and maintain status in the male group as well as nurture the male identity (Archer, 1994). This is a concept mentioned by both Price (2001) and Seifert (1993), who both argue that wartime rape is about asserting not only one’s male identity, but also one’s national identity.
Men have the choice over whether to assert their masculinity through legitimate or illegitimate means. To achieve masculinity appropriately a man could have a stable family life or provide for dependents and so on. However, should the behaviour required to assert one’s masculinity take on an illegal form, this does not take priority over the need to reaffirm that one is indeed, a man. Polk (1997) found that a man is more likely to assert their masculinity illegally when he feels threatened.
With this and Connell’s masculinity constructs in mind, Messerschmidt (1993) developed the idea that criminal behaviour is used as a resource when legitimate means to assert one’s masculinity are not available. Messerschmidt even predicted that violent behaviour is likely to occur when the resources are in short supply, and argued that because of the ever-changing nature of life and the unpredictability of which means could satisfy a masculinity, that masculinity is socially structured and dependent on cues. From this then, we can establish that rape (by these explanations) is neither sexual nor straightforward.
I have chosen to use rape in the context of war as my example because of its somewhat undiluted nature. For example, in 1937 the city of Nanking in China was subjected to the mass rape and sexual torture of an estimated 20,000 women in the first month of the Japanese occupation (Seifert, 1996). The shocking incidence of such sexual abuse in one area demonstrates that the structure of wartime rape can be very concentrated. Thus, is would be legitimate to argue that the understanding of masculinity we derive from this will be in a ‘purer’ form than if we were to simply begin by looking at rape in an ‘everyday’ context. Through the study of wartime rape, we are made aware of the ‘gender war’ that characterises every military conflict, or rather that occurs alongside it, in times of war or peace.
Using rape in wartime as an example has its drawbacks, however. It could be argued that much of the work cited with reference to wartime rape is limited to the assumption that the attackers are male and the victims female. As we have been made fully aware by the events in Abu Ghraib in 2003 (Alison, 2007) this is not always the case. However, when viewed in terms of what is being studied, this limitation begins to appear less restrictive than originally believed. For example, the incident involving the abuse of male detainees by a female soldier in Abu Ghraib could be perceived as the construct of hegemonic masculinity neglecting to discriminate in terms of gender – it is, after all, the main thrust of Connell’s argument that masculinities are indeed a social construct. The adopting of a masculine construct by a female in a characteristically masculine environment, for whatever reason (As noted by Sanday, 2007), does not seem altogether unlikely.
Lisa Price (2001) contends that we should place our abhorrence to one side and attempt to understand the logic used by soldier-rapists. She provides several explanations for wartime rape using qualitative sources such as victims’ accounts.
‘One of the functions of violence,’ Price argues ‘… is that it exaggerates difference… between the violator and the victim’ (P. 212). She cites Goldhagen’s (1997) argument that the degradation of the Jewish people in concentration camps during World War Two served to widen the gap between prisoner and officer, thus facilitating their destruction.
Price also refers to Scarry (1985), as emphasising the ways that violence separates the torturer from their victim – the torturer has control over the victim’s pain levels, among other things. Thus, Scarry says, ‘pain becomes power’ (p.37). Price suggests that in the military, like ‘in the masculinist world view, the loyal (male) citizenship is defined as the will and capacity to commit (“to do”) violence upon the enemy’ (p.213). She goes on to say that the doer will achieve self-fulfilment upon the dismantling of the ‘other’s’ being, be it mentally or physically, or both. Price cites Kappelar as observing ‘he affirms himself by posing the ‘other’ as inessential and as object’ (Kappelar, 1998, p.38). The very act by which a soul is torn to shreds is that which asserts the attacker’s masculinity. Price gives the example of a rape victim’s account of her experience, noting that the attacker uses the word ‘slaughter’ as opposed to ‘kill’ when threatening her, showing how he has come to see her as so separate to his own species that he believes cutting her throat would not even be murder as he does not see her as human.
Furthermore, Price argues, by degrading the victim and forcing her to be a part of that degradation, he confirms what he already believed – that she is subhuman, dispensable and completely unlike him. This particular feature of masculinity in war rape can be used to explain rape in peacetime too. Peggy Reeves Sanday (2007) provides a comprehensive insight into campus rape in the USA in her text ‘Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus’. It could be argued that the process undertaken by fraternity brothers in getting a female so intoxicated with drink and drugs that she falls unconscious and is no longer recognisable as a female, let alone human. Thus, their masculinity has been affirmed by taking something from a female – her consciousness, her dignity, and her right not to be violated.
The next feature that Price highlights is the ‘performance’ aspect within wartime rape – both she and Brownmiller (1975) note that a very high incidence of wartime rape is gang rape. According to Price, the features can vary – sometimes the decision is made as a group, on other occasions some lead and others simply follow. Ruth Seifert (1993) noted the ‘ritualized nature’ of the act of gang rape, where the sequence is determined by the status each man holds within the group. Seifert observes that the apparent purpose of the gang rape appears to be to prove one’s manliness to the rest of the group – as was mentioned in the beginning of this essay, when an opportunity to prove one’s masculinity arises, the moral dubiousness of the action means little. Especially, as Messerschmidt (1993) observes, if that male has learnt in the past that illegal action has asserted his masculinity in a successful way. ‘Through rape,’ Price argues ‘They demonstrate that they are “real men”… worthy of inclusion in the brotherhood.’ Whilst at the same time trying to maintain their status as the epitome of masculinity by warding off perceived ‘threats’ such as enemy women.
Another perspective on this, however, is highlighted once again by Sanday, who takes note of the homoerotic nature of the gang rape. She says ‘that multiple sexual activity is directed toward a single female victim rather than turned within the group. However, by sharing the same sexual object, the brothers are having sex with each other as well.’ (p.125). This analysis is somewhat Freudian, granted, but given that many other aspects of fraternity activities that Sanday highlights, such as the ‘heap’ (p.79) and the ‘circle dance’ (p.68), are of the same vein, her insight is a compelling one.
Turning to another dimension of the ‘performance’ aspect of wartime rape, Brownmiller (1975) draws attention to the common practise of making a husband or father watch his loved one being defiled by enemy soldiers. The purpose of this, however, is very different when rape is simply a performance among peers. One could postulate that the aim of these heartbreaking theatrics is to send a very clear message to their male enemies. The invading soldiers have successfully managed to subordinate the masculinities of the victim’s loved one by rendering them helpless, the implication that they cannot protect ‘their’ women is paramount to their victory. They have not only conquered the land, but also the men who hail from it.
Furthermore, it has been established that in many cultures, rape victims are rejected by their husbands and families, as though their ordeal was somehow their fault. Seifert (1996) cites the rape of 200,000 women in Bangladesh in 1971 by the Pakistan army. Many of the women were turned out by their husbands and families into camps provided by the government and left to fend for themselves and possibly any children that may have resulted from the rape.
Unsurprisingly, the camps soon became slums, and at the time of writing in 1996, Seifert notes that many women were still living as outcasts in them. This example just serves as further evidence for the idea posed by Brownmiller (1975) that these women are simply the ‘property’ of a nation, their value decreasing with what could be termed ‘wear and tear’. Thus, when the war is over and the smoke has cleared, the men of the defeated nation are left with the everlasting reminder of their subordinated masculinities, their damaged pride. The conquering nation has sent them a very clear message – their masculinity has been challenged, and due to their inability to protect their ‘property’, they have failed to measure up. Seifert (1993) and Price (2001) are also aware of this ‘communication’, and give the example of the war in former Yugoslavia, where women were captured, raped, impregnated and sent back across enemy lines when they were too far along in their pregnancies to abort safely. Seifert makes the insightful comment that from this situation, the men do not display empathy and horror at the atrocities suffered by their wives and daughters, but instead thought only of how their masculinity had been wounded. In her words, ‘What counts is not the suffering of women, but the effect it has on men.’ (p.3).
Continuing with the theme of women as nothing more than the property of a nation – the currency with which men prove their manliness and virility – Brownmiller makes mention of the writings of one James M. Read (1941) who observes the frequency with which rape and theft were committed in the same instance by German soldiers (in French accounts) during World War One. Brownmiller comments (with some irony) that ‘a police detective in any American city would hardly find such a combination startling since rape and theft are often committed together if an opportunity arises’ (p. 47), and so one could argue that the raping of a person who is considered to be the property of another man, is simply an extension of the stealing of his DVD player or laptop. It is ‘just another thing’ that one masculinity might do in order to subordinate another.
Finally, with specific reference to Messerschmidt’s (1993) assertion that when there are no legitimate means available by which to assert a man’s masculinity, he will most likely take an illegal route, I would like to draw attention to Alison (2007) and Price (2001). These women make mention of the use of enablers (such as stimulants and alcohol) by soldiers in order to perform the act of rape. Not only this, but Price cites several examples of women being raped with objects such as the soldier’s gun or a wooden baton. These examples provide us with two pieces of information – firstly, the use of stimulants to enable sex and alcohol to retreat into for respite, Alison argues, is indicative of a man who did not wish to assert his authority in such a way, but as was mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the assertion of masculinity takes precedent – the end justifies the means, so to speak. Price gives an account of soldiers weeping in grief and confusion (p.217). We can add another dimension to this argument by observing that soldiers who found the situation distressing were subordinated by their fellow troops and called ‘sissies’ (p.215). It is possible to argue that these soldiers felt faced with the possibility that if they did not commit what his comrades were requesting him to, they may think him such a ‘sissy’ that they would not bother to aid him in the heat of battle. According to Connell’s typology, one could argue that these men are more of a complicit masculinity, meaning that they do not adhere strictly to the values of patriarchy in the way that hegemonic masculinities do and so experience distress when faced with the prospect of having to violate a woman.
When evaluating the extent to which constructs of masculinity provide an explanation for the occurrence of rape, I wish to draw attention to the examples of war rape cited in this essay. Each one was given explanation by facets of the constructs put forward in Connell’s 1987 typology or in the theory hypothesised by Messerschmidt. However, I feel it is important to bear in mind that there is very little empirical evidence to support Messerschmidt’s theory since it’s conception, and although a few basic qualitative studies support the foundations of his theory (such as Perry, 2001), little has been done to provide evidence for the ways in which men search to assert their masculinity. Furthermore, both theories use the same criteria by which to explain a range of crimes as well as rape, such as burglary and fraud. It would be too much to assume there is one fundamental explanation for a variety of crimes.
These points aside, I do feel that by using these explanations in conjunction with other explanations of rape, we could compile a very comprehensive theory as to why people commit acts of sexual abuse. In short, while useful and inventive, constructs of masculinity do not have all the answers.
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