War in Congo: Mass Rape Shows How Rape is a Crime Of Power, Not Passion

In the wake of several American stories of gang rape and a G8 push against sexual violence, stories are coming out about the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one of the most recent mass perpetrations of sexual violence. The presentation and justification of rape and sexual assault in these cases shows that rape is not about sex but about power. If states or societies want to prevent sexual assault, they will have to adjust the power dynamics in their society by empowering victims, disempowering rapists, and removing the power of impunity for assailants.

One of the Congo soldier rapists has spoken about his crimes. On November 22, after losing a battle against the rebels, thousands of troops descended on Minova. At least one group of soldiers agreed that they would engage in mass rape, "because it gave us a lot of pleasure." However, sex was only a small part of the decision. As the soldier says, "We could do whatever we wanted." Hundreds of women were assaulted in the two days it took the army to regain control of its troops.

These rapes involved three kinds of power. The first, soldiers were powerful enough to rape in the first place. The second is the power the soldiers gained through rape. In the case of war, following a defeat, the rape gave them new power as dominators. The third power is knowing that they could get away with their crimes.

None of these types of power are unique to war zones. Rape by civilians reflects the same power-seeking and power-seizing behavior.

That use of rape for power and the non-sexual causes of rape have been documented in civilian populations. 71% of rapes are planned in advance, which means that rape is not a crime of passion. 60% are committed by people who have regular sexual partners, which indicates that rape is not merely about getting sex. What rape is about, since it is not sex, is well expressed by University of Minnesota sociologist John Hamlin: "Rapists are motivated by the desire to have power and control over another person, not by sexual attraction."

If America is to combat its own rape problem or the global community is to stop rape, then it must address the power structures behind rape. To do so, it must defeat the power dynamics addressed above. The first type of power is hard to fight. There are physical and social power imbalances in life and, especially, in war. It is hard to remove the power of the attacker and hard to give power to the would-be victims. However, it should be the effort of society to make sure no group is so marginalized that attacks against them are seen as the privilege of the powerful.

The second type, the psychological power granted to the attacker, is nearly impossible to prevent, because it exists in the mind of the attacker. Society, though, could wage a preemptive strike on this logic by vilifying rapists, not victims, and teaching everyone that rape does not enhance the rapist. This education cannot just be theoretical; it must also be shown in the way we respond to and punish actual rapes.

Responding to rape invokes the third kind of power. Rapists, especially in war zones, have the power of believing they will not be punished. They can rape with impunity, because there is no deterrent and because they are not stopped. Only 3% of rapes in the United States result in rapists being imprisoned; only 5% result in felony convictions.  With statistics like that, the criminality of rape is not a deterrent. In the words of one of the Congolese rape victims, Nzigire Chibalonza, 60, "If justice is done, this might stop the soldiers raping." Society needs to change its response to rape if it is going to take away rapists' power of impunity.

Ultimately, rape is a crime about power. While war zones demonstrate the mass violence that unchecked power and a feeling of powerlessness can invoke, even peaceful societies include power-driven sexual violence. If society is going to tackle sexual violence, it has to address that power structure. Stop giving people the power to overpower their victims.  Stop blaming victims. Stop letting rapists get away with rape.  Otherwise, we can expect more cases like Steubenville, Delhi, and Minova.

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