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Men often rape in violent conflict. However, not all violent conflict is war and not all war is genocide. Sexual violence during war and during genocide are different. Sexual violence is particularly well suited to genocide.

Even though many civilians can be killed in war because of who they are, and even though war can be used as a way of accomplishing genocide, not all wars are genocidal. What makes a war a genocide is when the intent is to destroy a particular racial, ethnic or religious group.

This applies to acts of violence within conflict as well. At one level, rape is rape. But, just as war and genocide are different things, so too, war rape and genocide rape are distinct. Four characteristics distinguish genocide rape from rape that occurs during wars.

Rape in War Is Not Necessarily Genocidal

In order to be a genocide the aggressors must have the aim of physically destroying the group. This does not mean that all members of the group must be killed. The aggressors can inflict on the victim group bodily or mental harm or conditions of life calculated to bring about the group's destruction.

So, rape is genocidal when it is part of this program. However, not all rapes in war fit this requirement.

Just because rape has an ethnic basis (as in the mass rape of Chinese women by the Japanese or the rape of German women by Soviet forces after World War II) doesn't make it genocidal. In both of these cases the goal of the aggressors was not to destroy the Chinese or the Germans. So, the rape was not genocidal.

Even if the rape is organized and systematic it is not necessarily genocidal. The Japanese government organized sex slaves--”comfort women”--for Japanese soldiers from many ethnic groups (predominantly Korean). However, the intent was not to destroy these ethnic groups, so the action wasn't genocidal.

Genocide Is One Sided

War has combatants on at least two sides. Genocide is relentlessly one-sided. In war, combatants (whether military or non-military) advance and retreat, seeking to gain control (generally over territory or political power). Genocide targets civil society—a people, not combatants—and so is not, legally speaking, a war at all.

We see a similar one-sidedness in genocidal rape. In war, rapes occur on both sides. Some soldier, of either army, take advantage of the chaos of war to rape. In a genocide, sexual violence targets one side in the conflict. Take the case of Serbian atrocities in the Bosnian genocide. Serb rape camps are well documented. Where are the rape camps run by Bosnian Muslims filled with Serbian women? Yes, there are tapes of Croatian soldiers raping Serbian women, but, as it turns out, these propaganda films were Serbian soldiers in Croatian uniforms raping non-Serbian women. The tapes were broadcast to the Serbian public to inflame outrage and motivate retaliation in-kind.

Labeling mass violence as a “civil war” runs the risk of papering over a genocide and justifying inaction. Even if atrocities are committed on both sides of a conflict, a radical disproportion of sexual violence by one group against the civilians of another group should be pretty clear indication that something other than a civil war is in progress.

Identity of the Perpetrator

In war, some women who are raped do not even know which side their rapists are on. In genocide, the identity of the perpetrator is essential. The woman (and by extension, her group) must know not simply that the atrocity occurred, but who was responsible.

In genocidal rape, the woman is a stand-in for her entire group, as is the rapist. What is said during genocidal rape is strong evidence for the equation of one-on-one violence to group-on-group violence in the minds of the attackers. Survivors of rape in the Bosnian genocide recount the statements screamed by the Serbian men during rapes:

Fuck you, Izetbegovic!” (Alija Izetbegovic was the first president of Bosnia and Herzogovenia)

Fuck you, Franjo Tudjman!” (Frajo Tudjman was the first president of Croatia)

Fuck your God. The Fucking God is on our side!” (Orthodox Christian Serb to a Bosnian Muslim woman)

In each of these examples, the identity of the group, often through metonymy with the group's leader, is layered onto the individual level act. The statements give meaning to the act and let it be known what is really going on.

The act also carries a message of aggressive potency. Not only can this man rape this woman, but the aggressor group can violate the victim group at will. In the words of one Serbian man to a Muslim woman he sexually tortured for two days and nights:

You Turkish women, your genitals are very good, but so far you were fucked by half a penis, now we will fuck you with a whole penis. For Serbs, it's fuck or kill.”

Rape Under Control

In war, rape has mostly an out-of-control quality. It is what an armed group of men can do if there is nothing to stop them.

However, in genocide, rape is under control. It has become a tool, not an accident. In genocide, men rape in groups because they are ordered to or because they are systematically permitted to do so. It is calculated. The men rape not as individual men, but as members of their race, ethnicity, religion or nationality. They sexually assault women (and sometimes other men) of a particular group.

The goal in genocidal rape is not merely to hurt people. Much less is the goal simply to have sex. Group destruction is the goal. Sexual violence is not simply some ancillary tool to this goal. Indeed, because of the peculiar nature of rape and sexual torture, it is particularly suited to genocide. In war, the destructive effects of rape are largely beside the point. In genocide, the destruction is the point.

Bottom Line

Men rape in episodes of violent conflict. But, just as the nature of violent conflict in war and violence in genocide are different, so too does the place of rape in war and genocide differ. Genocide rape is defined by the goal of the genocide: destroy the other group. Because of the nature of sexual violence, it is particularly well suited to genocide.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Analysis of primary research (e.g., victim testimony) and legal literature.

Funding Sources:

Sponsors of the 2002 Otto Mainzer Lecture at New York University (specific funding sources not reported).

Full Text Availability:
Full text available for purchase at

MacKinnon, Catherine A. 2006. "Genocide's Sexuality." Pp. 209-233 in Are Women Human? Catherine MacKinnon. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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