In 1975’s Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller noted that rapists are not the only ones to benefit – if one may use such a word – from rape:
“Men who commit rape have served in effect as front-line masculine shock troops, terrorists guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever known.”
Brownmiller’s insight, shocking at the time, was that rape is part of a global, sustained war on women, keeping potential victims in a state of fear. It facilitates male domination, for rapists and non-rapists alike.
The idea that rape is about power, not sex, has become a familiar one. While this has not prevented the usual short skirts/wrong knickers/mixed signals excuses making their regular appearances in courts of law, it has improved women’s understanding of rape culture and what drives it. Men do not rape because they desire us; if anything, it is because they hate us.
When Boko Haram kidnapped and raped thousands of girls and young women, the world knew this was not about sex. Many of those captured were forced into marriage; of those who returned to their communities, the majority had become pregnant by their captors, offering a particularly painful illustration of the way in which sexual violence is linked to reproductive control. Whether women and girls are forced to become pregnant, rendered infertile or denied the right to continue with pregnancies, the same belief that female bodies must be rendered passive vessels, sites for male aggression and domination, is in play.
Which brings us to this Tuesday, when the UN backed a resolution on reducing rape in conflict. This was, however, only passed after the removal of passages referring to sexual and reproductive health, following the threat of a US veto. The Trump administration believes that such passages offer implicit support for abortion rights.
To be fair, they’re probably right. Given that over 800 women and girls die every day due to complications of pregnancy and birth, the cessation of unwanted pregnancies is as much a health issue as it is a moral one. Abortion has a role to play in responses to sexual violence, and in reproductive health more broadly. And yet, as we all know from what is happening right now in the US, reproductive coercion is one act of violence against women that the Trump administration is happy not just to ignore, but to actively promote.
Opposition to sexual assault – in the abstract, providing it’s not one of your friends, colleagues or a nice college jock who’s been accused – is one thing. Opposition to forced pregnancy is apparently quite another. Never mind that the same patriarchal objectives – control over female physical and psychological boundaries, the overriding of female bodily autonomy, the treatment of a female body as a means to an end – are being met. When it comes to forced gestation, women just aren’t allowed to say “no”.
It is hard to trust the commitment to ending sexual violence of any organisation or political group which takes such a harsh line on reproductive freedom. Women’s ownership of their own bodies is cast as temporary and contingent on other, more pressing political matters. Indeed, one gets the feeling that, to some of the most powerful men in the world, rape in war is not a global outrage so much as a failure of etiquette. It’s just so much more civilised to use courts of law, legal threats and fake moralising to control female bodies and lives.
In Brownmiller’s words, “A world without rape would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation.”
One might add to that that a world without reproductive coercion would be a world in which women took pleasure and pride in their bodies, without fear of punishment for the crime of being female. That some women and girls are forced to bear children against their will – and that some women and girls die doing so – is enough to remind all of us how little we are valued.
Just as rape is not about sex, what the Trump administration is doing is not about protecting unborn lives. It’s about power. It’s always about power. A resolution that condemns some of the violence against us, but tacitly supports it in another form, is not going to keep us safe.