Judging Sex in War

Rape is often said to constitute a fate worse than death. It has long been deployed as an instrument of war and outlawed by international humanitarian law as a serious-sometimes even capital-crime. While disagreement exists over the meaning of rape and the proof that should be required to convict an individual of the crime, today the view that rape is harmful to women enjoys wide concurrence. Advocates for greater legal protection against rape often argue that rape brings shame upon raped women as well as upon their communities. Shame thus adds to rape’s power as a war weapon. Sexual violence has not, however, been deployed as an instrument in every war. In this sense it is neither universal nor inevitable, as political scientist Elisabeth Jean Wood has recently demonstrated. If wartime rape is not inevitable, I would argue that neither is the shame often seen to accompany it. In this Review, I use For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, and other narratives that consider sexual violence in war to demonstrate that women’s roles in war extend far beyond that of victim. By showing how different characters and agents in the stories offer possibilities for reimagining the harm of rape, I encourage feminists and humanitarians to question the assumption that women who have been raped in wartime are destroyed. By seeing rape as a fate worse than death, at least in part because of the harm of shame they assume it brings, feminists and humanitarians often exacerbate the very shame they hope to relieve. Particularly when made hypervisible in the context of mass rape, wartime rape risks becoming the exclusive identifying element for women who are members of the group primarily subjected to it.