Silence is the Enemy

By Sean Carroll | June 1, 2009 10:27 am

Sheril at the Intersection has put up a brave post, using her own experience with sexual assault to bring attention to the plight of victims of sexual violence in Africa and elsewhere. She and Dr. Isis are organizing a campaign of bloggers to urge people to speak out, write to Congress, and donate to charities that working to help victims of sexual violence.

Rape is a problem no matter where it happens, but conditions in Africa have grown desperate, especially in the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, and Liberia. In Liberia alone, over the course of the civil war, it is estimated that 75% of women were raped. Three out of four. Children are especially vulnerable: in Liberia, 28 percent of rapes involve children 4 or younger. These aren’t typos.

The numbers are from a recent column by Nicholas Kristof. Sexual violence isn’t about sex; it’s about power and domination, and in this case it’s being used as an instrument of war. And it’s nothing peculiar to Africa; rape has always accompanied war, and was a major part of violence against Muslims in Bosnia, not to mention Japan’s invasion of China. It’s an ancient tradition; as the Bible says in Zechariah 14:2:

For I [God] will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses looted and the women raped.

Here is Kristof’s report on Jackie, a 7-year-old girl who was raped by a security guard at her school.

As Kristof says,

The evidence is overwhelming that the best way to deal with rape — whether in Darfur or Liberia, or even in the United States — is to demystify it, dismantle the taboos, and address it directly.

Let’s do that.

  • FekketCantenel

    A chilling and serious story . . . but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at Kristof jumping rope. Mood whiplash!

  • Jason Dick

    First, let me just say that I wholly support this. Rape is a serious problem that we need to investigate, understand, and work hard to prevent.

    That said, one thing that I don’t quite understand, is why it seems to be asserted so often that rape is not about sex, but instead about power. As I’ve read up on this, it seems less and less likely to me that it is actually a true claim (basically, it seems to be based upon a single set of interviews of prison inmates, something highly suspect as people in such a situation are highly likely to say what they believe their interviewers want to hear, but is also contraindicated by the average patterns of rape).

    But beyond whether or not it is true, why is it that people think that even if it were true, that it is an important distinction to make? What is it that we “need to bear in mind” about rape being about power instead of about sex? What difference does that make?

  • Sean

    Jason, I think it’s an important distinction to make because imagining that rape is mostly about sex is a first step toward blaming the victims — “she was asking for it, wearing a short skirt like that.” And also because it is true (largely, obviously, not exclusively). I don’t know the set of interviews you’re referring to, but look at the links on rape as an instrument of war and domination of the conquered. Or just read about Sheril’s experience; it’s in no way atypical.

  • Jason Dick

    Well, I suppose I might be able to understand that as a motivation to emphasize the point, but it seems to me that there are other ways to make that point just as effectively. The one I would personally side with is that it doesn’t matter what a woman does or does not do, there is nothing whatsoever that can justify that sort of behavior towards a woman (or girl or man or boy, for that matter, but the vast majority of rapes are committed by men towards girls in their late teenage years to early 20’s…which is one thing that makes the current situation in Liberia so unique…and so troubling).

    As far as Sheril’s experience is concerned, I don’t see how that in any way validates the position that rape is about power. Rapists obviously attempt to achieve domination over their victims, but whether that is a means to an end or and end in and of itself is by no means clear to me. I do hope that the thought that it is about power instead of sex isn’t genuinely a comfort to these women, because I would hate to be stepping on something that helps them get through an obviously traumatic experience. But if it isn’t true that rape is about power, surely there must be another way to frame the experience that would be equally comforting, but more true? (and in the long run, more helpful, as an accurate depiction of the causes and motivations of rape is more likely to lead to effective means to prevent it)

    Finally, as for rape during war, one alternative possibility is that the vulnerability of women in such situations, due to the breakdown of typical social support networks, is the primary reason why rape is so common in those situations. Note that theft is also extremely common in wartime situations.

    Anyway, I just worry that people have become emotionally attached to a certain truth claim that doesn’t have strong evidential support, and may in the long run end up hurting people, particularly the primary victims of rape: young women, as it misguides our efforts to help prevent it.

  • Hassan

    I don’t get it; why is hers a BRAVE post? I don’t see any self-respecting person would ever judge a woman who confesses being a victim of even a full act of rape. So, how is confessing something terrible happened to you have anything to do with bravery? she shouldn’t be supposed to be embarrassed.

  • jick

    Sorry to nitpick, but I don’t think Nanking is in Manchuria…

  • Sean

    Oops, my bad; I’ll fix it.

  • spyder

    Rape has been used as an instrument of terror to subjugate populations much like assassination is being used in the US to stop medical practitioners from helping their patients. The Anthropocene Era is overflowing with the carnage of rape as a political tool of oppression and dominion. When do human beings rise up and say STOP and IT WON’T HAPPEN AGAIN!


    Mass rapings of girls across the globe?


    1. mass genital mutilations of young boys

    2. mass conscription of men

    3. corporal punishment only for men

    4. no child custody after a divorce for men

    5. male homosexuality illegality


  • Lab Lemming

    Re 5: Hassan
    If the world was at it is supposed to be, people wouldn’t be assaulted at all.

    Here on Earth, though, crimes happen, and the victims are often targeted for further abuse, blamed for their own misfortune, or patronized and ignored.

    In many countries, it is a crime to be raped.

    In many universities, sexual harassment units protect the institution’s reputation at the victim’s expense.

    In many situations, admission of being attacked can invite further trouble.

    So there are plenty of rational reasons for victims to be wary.

    On a more visceral level, it is hard for anyone to admit being harmed by others. Kids find it hard to admit they get bullied; investors find it hard to admit they’ve been ripped off. Sexual crimes are much more emotionally charged then the examples above are.

    So her post is incredibly brave.

  • daisyrose

    Bad fortune brings more Bad luck !

  • Andrew from Chicago

    Take a listen to the new Green Day album, and in particular: “Know Your Enemy”

    “Do you know your enemy?.
    Do you know your enemy?
    Well, gotta know your enemy, wah eh..”
    “Silence is the enemy.”
    “Against the urgency”
    “So rally up the demons of your soul”

  • diogenes

    J.D. : you seem to be entirely correct. Rape, like most things, is seldom “about” any one thing.
    The primary reason the meme “rape is about power” has survived (against lots of evidence that it’s much more complicated than that) is that it’s politically correct. It DOES make the victim feel better about her (him) self. That’s obviously a good thing, it’s just as obviously not necessarily true (what if there was overwhelming evidence that it WASN’T true, not in the slightest, would that make rape any LESS despicable? Would that make the victim responsible for the crime? I hardly think so.). I put this meme in the same category with “addiction is a disease”. Thinking this may help (or possibly harm) some people, but that doesn’t make it true.

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  • RD

    Thanks Sean for highlighting this problem.
    I am saddened by some of the comments that trivialise what is a huge problem in my home country (South Africa), as elsewhere.
    Going by experience here we need to broaden the definition of rape. Every time a man refuses to use a condom, that is rape. Every time a man uses his status or economic power to ‘persuade’ that sexy young thing to have sex, that is rape. It is rape because she is desperate for the hope that something, somehow will lift her out of her circumstances.
    Women here have been reduced to circumstances where they cannot refuse, they cannot even insist on a condom. Because they have no power. Power has been concentrated in the hands of men.

    And this is why Sean is right when he says it is about power and domination. Power and domination allows them unfettered satisfaction of their impulses. Power allows them to control public perceptions so that suspicion always falls on the women. Sadly for women, the man’s satisfaction of exercising power multiplies the satisfaction of sex.

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  • Just can not understand !

    This truly is a horrific thing to happen to any girl My wife grew up in her home where her mother left them with their Grandparents because of a bad home life to get a better life going for a while . This man the grandfather was very strong in the community where people feared him and those in politics came to him to help get in office but he rapped his grand children at the young ages of 5 and 6 years old with his wife in the other room knowing , and helping get her ready she always thought . Him mean to the bone beating her if she did or asked for something but these children of this age could of done nothing provoking in anyway I see this as just an evil person . It has effected my wife in a very bad way , she was in her late 20s before she even spoke of it the first time to me . She tried talking to her other sisters after that but they wont talk about it and the man is a saint in the mothers eyes . Years later one of his own sons finely shot and killed him for something I can’t remember at the time as I try not to think about him anymore . But rape has nothing to do with the victim as they don’t chose to have this done to them not once or over and over which ever happens to them , and it’s an insult to them for anyone to even insinuate something that is or might of been .

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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