As Russian soldiers retreated from the kyiv suburb of Bucha, surviving Ukrainian citizens emerged to tell harrowing stories of sadism and cruelty. According to these eyewitnesses, Russian soldiers raped dozens of women in the city – and many of them did not survive. Anyone reading these stories or hearing the testimonies of women in the news would be rightly horrified and appalled. President Volodymyr Zelensky has strongly called for an investigation into war crimes.
And meanwhile, war rages in other neighborhoods, putting other civilians at similar risk.
Anyone reading these stories or hearing the testimonies of women in the news would be rightly horrified and appalled.
As a historian who has spent decades thinking and writing about sexual violence and coercion, I too am horrified. But perhaps unlike many of them who have learned of these atrocities, I am sadly not surprised both by the commission of wartime rapes and by the particular way in which these reports have made headlines.
Rape has been used as a tool of conquest for centuries. The foundation of Rome in the 8th century BC. continued through famous large works of art depicting Romans killing Sabine men and raping Sabine women. Some of the earliest European explorations of the Americas included sexual violence against Indigenous women. Christopher Columbus “gave” one of his lieutenants, Michele de Cuneo, a kidnapped indigenous woman. De Cuneo proudly recorded how he whipped, raped and restrained her. Similarly, European men who kidnapped Africans into slavery regularly allowed “sailors to take African women and lie on their bodies”. Rape has long been a way for men to express their power of mastery over others.
Unfortunately, these abuses against women are not confined to a distant history. So-called comfort women were kidnapped from Korea and other parts of the Japanese empire and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. The Pakistani army raped hundreds of thousands of Bengali women and girls during the Bangladesh War of Independence. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Hutu militias and their supporters raped thousands of Tutsi women and girls. Bosnia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and many more. The list is depressing and seemingly endless.
Over the past decades, feminist activists have successfully advocated for institutional recognition that sexual violence in conflicts between nation states constitutes a violation of human rights. In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a “Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict”. The UN’s International Criminal Tribunal has prosecuted conflict-related crimes of sexual violence, including in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the tribunal has accelerated an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine.
But these courts cannot do much. And rape remains an enduring tool of war. Researchers have offered analyzes of the underlying factors that may characterize various formulations of sexual violence in military conflict. Sex is a powerful act of communication: it can create families and solidify personal bonds and hierarchies. In patriarchal societies throughout history, sexual access to women confirms the authority of men. Wartime sexual violence signals the invader’s attempt to claim power as a new patriarchal ruler.
Understanding that wartime rape is an act of power with a pointed message also helps explain why particular stories of wartime rape make headlines. But we must always keep in mind the many rapes that do not make international headlines: those that girls and women do not feel safe to share; wartime rape in non-Western countries that often receives much less global attention; the sexual abuse of men and boys who do not become public for fear of stigmatization against particular notions of masculinity.
Unsurprisingly, the stories of sexual assault we hear about often point to geopolitical narratives about who is “right” and who is “wrong” in a conflict. From the perspective of the victims, the invaders who violate turn out to be illegitimate political leaders due to their perversion of power. In Ukraine, rape by Russian soldiers is a serious wrong which confirms the illegitimacy of the whole invasion.
Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman reported that not only were Russian forces holding dozens of Ukrainian girls and women as sex slaves, but soldiers also said they hoped their captives would shrink back as a result. sex in the future and therefore would not bear Ukrainian children. It is genocide shrouded in gender-based sexual violence. Soldiers could have killed women and girls to prevent reproduction. But they chose to inflict sexual abuse as a sign of their power.
Sexual violence has been a powerful message in times of war, largely committed by men and at the expense of female victims, throughout history. Unfortunately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to carry on this horrible tradition; it has already been called “one of the worst campaigns of large-scale sexual violence” in recent years. We should be outraged by the stories of torture, abuse and murder. We should push for international attention and redress. And we must remember that rape can become a tool of war because of what it represents beyond cruel individual acts. Rape has long been understood as a way for men to express their power over other men. As long as men’s sexual access to women is seen as a sign of mastery and power, we will continue to read horror headlines.