In the Viper Pit: Male Rape and Military Sexual Trauma (MST)


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This blog explores some of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of sexual assault on male survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  Although the percentage of female survivors of MST is greater than the percentage of male survivors, the number of men who have sustained this trauma far exceeds the number of female survivors, since the veteran population remains overwhelmingly male.  Men who have been sexually assaulted are as likely if not more likely to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome as veterans who have experienced combat-related trauma.   There is virtually no research on male survivors, who face some different problems than female survivors of MST  and who generally have greater difficulty discussing or seeking treatment for their trauma.  It is vital for social workers to educate themselves about men’s issues with MST and to develop novel ways to make it easier for male survivors to discuss their experiences.

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A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Tim O’Brien, from “How To Tell A War Story”

The Problem
We have heard a great deal about the plight of female military service personnel who experience sexual assault at the hands of their fellow soldiers lately, but very little about male survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  A small but growing number of articles about the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of MST demonstrate that this corrosive, criminal activity leads more certainly to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than combat experience in women (Calhoun, 1994; Campbell, Dworkin, & Cabral, 2009; Donna L. Washington et al., 2010; M. M. Kelly et al., 2008; U. A. Kelly, Skelton, Patel, & Bradley, 2011; Kimerling, Gima, Smith, Street, & Frayne, 2007; Mary Ann Boyd; Sharon Valente & Callie Wight, 2007; Turchik & Wilson, 2010).  There are as yet no studies showing that MST is as likely or more likely to lead to PTSD in male survivors, but there are in fact very few studies on male survivors of this trauma.  Furthermore, while feminist social workers and theorists have rightly pointed to the devastating physical, psychological, social and spiritual affects that the hyper-masculinist military culture has had on women, we have only just begun to pay attention to how this culture has affected men.  In this paper, I examine some of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual causes and effects of sexual assaults by men against their male military personnel. 

The Veterans Administration (VA) defines MST as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty of active duty for training.”  The VA further defines sexual harassment as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in nature” (Affairs, 2010). Male survivors of MST are only now beginning to speak about their experiences.  Although women constitute by far the greater percentage of survivors of MST in the military, the number of men who have experienced this trauma is much larger than the number of women, since the military remains overwhelmingly male (Affairs, 2010).  Indeed, the number of living veterans who experienced MST over the course of last seventy years is probably far greater than we could possibly estimate.   Cultural attitudes towards gender and sexuality changed dramatically during that period, but mainstream culture has remained cramped by rigid gender norms.  Although the entrance of women and very recent toleration for homosexuality in the armed forces has dramatically altered military culture, it remains hierarchical and masculinist (Burgess, Slattery, & Herlihy, 2013).  Masculinism is the arbitrary elevation of all things masculine over all things feminine.  Within military and civilian life, men’s experiences of MST are bound to differ from women’s.

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Greg Jeloudov

What are the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of this trauma in general? Consider some of these stories: Less than two weeks after Greg Jeloudov joined the army at the age of 35,  fellow-soldiers gang-raped him in the shower at Fort Benning, Georgia.   They didn’t like his Russian-Irish accent.   They didn’t like his previous history as an actor.  They called him a “commie faggot” and said, “We don’t like actors here.…We especially don’t like Russian and Irish actors.” (Duell, 2011).  They beat and sodomized him in 2009, and now Mr. Jeloudov takes 13 different medicines as he struggles with PTSD, depression, nightmares, and thoughts of suicide.   “Being a male victim is horrible,” Theodore James Skovranek told a reporter.  In 2003 soldiers grabbed and held him down while another shoved his genitals in his face.  He shrugged it off at the time, but said, “I walked around for a long time thinking: I don’t feel like a man. But I don’t feel like a woman either.  So there’s just this void.”

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Air Force Veteran Michael Matthews and his wife Gerry Lynn Matthews.

In 1974, three Whitman Air Force Base servicemen jumped, beat, and sodomized Michael Matthews, who had just graduated from high school. Afraid to report the incident, Matthews became depressed and suicidal.  His first two marriages foundered while he suffered in silence.  “I lived with this beast in my head for nearly 30 years, before telling my wife and going for counseling” (Evans, 2012).

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Higher-ranking enlisted soldiers in Norfolk raped Thomas F. Drapac on three separate occasions in 1963. He, too, kept the assaults to the himself for decades, worried about his sexuality and drowned his recurring nightmares in alcohol and sex (Dao, 2013).

Sexual trauma, like combat trauma, injures the brain and the body in both men and women.  During the moment of attack, the sympathetic nervous system engages and stimulates a flood of cortisol throughout the system, elevating blood pressure, heart rate, inducing sweating and a hyper-aroused sensory state.  This is the “fight-or-flight” response that humans and other animals experience when we sense danger.   Because the victim of sexual trauma is temporarily rendered helpless to fight or flee, he is overwhelmed; his ordinary adaptations to life break down (Herman, 1992, 1997). The most fundamental psychological element of trauma is a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation” (Herman, 1992, 1997).  The neural system is injured: people who have been traumatized often feel as though their nervous systems have become unplugged from reality. (Herman, 1992, 1997).

It is difficult to separate the biological from the psychological effects of trauma, since the brain is corporeal, an organ within the biological organism.  Like all traumatized persons, MST survivors frequently re-live the initial moment of trauma in a sensory fashion, because the memory of the event is so terrible that it has not yet been incorporated, as it were, into the set of stories that a person recalls and retells about him- or herself in the past.

This happens because traumatic memories do not encode the same way that ordinary memories do.  They tend to be experienced as “fixed images” or vivid sensations felt in the body but incapable of being expressed in words.  These non-integrated, traumatic memories frequently intrude upon the traumatic survivor (Herman, 1992, 1997).  Involuntarily pulled back into the moment through nightmares or flashbacks, the traumatized person experiences the flood of cortisol again and again, enduring an overload of stress that impairs the immune system and weakens the heart.

Because of the association of sodomy with homosexuality, and the military’s long-standing, profoundly heterosexist bias, many male survivors of MST have been afraid to speak about their experiences.  Living with unprocessed traumatic memories and untreated PTSD over decades, as many survivors have done, can lead to dementia (Chao et al., 2010).  Dementia can be understood as a biological degeneration of the brain and psychological and spiritual disintegration, a kind of wasting away of the mind and soul that has profound social consequences.   Trauma effects people in similar ways.

Traumatized people typically experience what Herman calls “constriction,” the trance that the person transfixed by helplessness and terror experiences at the moment of the assault, as well as the disorientation and psychic numbing, even to the point of paralysis, that the survivor experiences in the aftermath of trauma.  Constriction interferes with purposeful action and initiative as well as with anticipation and planning for the future.

ImageMen who experience this common side-affect of trauma, but who are unable to speak about it or unwilling to seek treatment, may regard themselves as weak failures, men who are not “men” insofar as they are unable to meet cultural expectations that they pursue productive and lucrative action in the world.  Indeed, many if not most men who experienced MST report that their masculinity was impaired or damaged.

Masculinity is a social construction, a sense of self formed in opposition to what is construed as femininity (Bourdieu, 2001). The U.S. military sustains an aggressively hierarchical, patriarchal, and homophobic culture.   By homophobic I mean not “fear of men,” as the name implies, but rather, and ironically, “fear of femininity,” especially in men.  As Pierre Bourdieu observes, masculinity is continually demonstrated in dynamic display:

Like honor–or shame, its reverse side, which we know, in contrast to guilt, is felt before others–manliness must be validated by other men, in its reality as actual or potential violence, and certified by recognition of membership of the group of ‘real men’.  A number of rites of institution, especially in education or military milieu, include veritable tests of manliness oriented toward the reinforcement of male solidarity.  Practices such as some gang rapes…are designed to challenge those under test to prove before others their virility in its violent reality, in other words stripped of all the devirilizing tenderness and gentleness of love, and they dramatically demonstrate the heteronomy of all affirmations of virility, their dependence on the judgment of the male group.

ImageThe soldiers who raped Greg Jeloudev confirmed their brotherhood and shored up masculinity by brutalizing a man who did not fit in, a man whose alternative manifestation of manliness challenged and threatened their own, precarious sense of themselves as men.  They could not tolerate his very difference.  The drill process by which soldiers are allegedly “broken down” often employs a similar dynamic.  The sergeant seeks to humiliate and shame the recruit by demeaning and “feminizing” him, insisting that he is not a “man” until he can himself turn off his emotions, eradicate his softness, and become a killing machine.

The actor in the following clip from Full Metal Jacket (Kubrik, 1987is notorious because was a former marine and gunnery sergeant originally hired only as an advisor.  Unsatisfied with the performance of the actor designated to play the part, he stepped in to demonstrate how the military turns what he here calls a “maggot” and a “lady” into a “weapon, a minister of death”:

Manliness in the military is constructed as the conquest of womanliness, of tenderness, of weakness, of that which is to be despised, demeaned, and dominated.The particularly pernicious effect that this obscene social dynamic has upon the male soldiers who have been raped by their fellows (a method of social cruelty that humans alone among all the animals perpetrate) is that they must become their worst enemies in order to survive.  They must adopt the mentality and sadistic behavior demanded in order to demonstrate that they are, indeed, men, or forever be spat upon as reviled, womanly outcasts who deserve nothing more than to be dominated again and again.

As with women who suffer MST, male survivors who are deployed or in the field often become captive to the culture, forced to endure the indignity of working alongside their abusers without recourse to any justice or understanding.   To report the attack, even to acknowledge its occurrence to one’s self, is to risk being subjected to further, unbearable humiliation and disgrace.   Before the Pentagon reversed its total ban on homosexuality in the service, anyone who reported having been assaulted was generally assumed to be unfit for duty.  “If you made a complaint, then you are gay and you’re out that that’s it,” Drapac explains.   Even though this would theoretically not take place in today’s military, for a man to admit that he has been “unmanned” in a culture that insists that manliness is superior to all other states of being requires immense courage, because the trauma cancels out his trust in others as well as himself (Herman, 1992).

ImageMoreover, because it radically destabilizes his understanding of himself as a male being in relation to other men and women, it unmoors his sexual identity and leaves him feeling lost, sexless, neither male nor female.  “Men don’t acknowledge being victims of sexual assault,” reports Dr. Carol O’Brien, who heads the PTSD program at Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Florida.  “Men tend to feel a great deal of shame, embarrassment and fear that others will respond negatively” (Dao, 2013). If, as happens in a small number of cases, the rapist is a woman, the male survivor of MST feels even further demeaned and unmoored.

ImageMale survivors may surely also experience spiritual isolation and confusion, through the inevitable question, “why me?” and the despair and self-loathing that fundamentally misconstrues his true nature.  He descends into a spiritual malaise, a separation from a sense of purpose and meaning in the world.   In fact the military culture that overtly promotes or covertly tolerates hyper-masculine concepts of honor is spiritually corrupt. When men and women embrace an ideal based on the arbitrary elevation of masculinity over femininity they exist not in harmony with one another, but rather in a permanent state of war against themselves.

The Population Concerned

The VA has been using an assessment tool to screen for MST since 2000  (Rowe, Gradus, Pineles, Batten, & Davison, 2009).  A 2012 study of a subset of veterans of 213,803 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with PTSD from April 1, 2002, to October 1, 2008, found that 31 % of the women and 1% of the mean screened positively for MST (Maguen et al., 2012).    Because the overwhelming number of veterans is male, the number of men is roughly equivalent to the number of women who have experienced MST.  Within this population, 12% of the men and 7% of the women have substance abuse problems, while 56% of the men and 70% of the women suffer from depression.  Male survivors of MST with PTSD displayed less frequency of comorbid depression, anxiety, and eating disorders than the female counterparts.  Both women and men with a history of MST were more likely to have three or more comorbid mental health diagnoses than those with PTSD who had not experienced MST (Maguen et al., 2012).  The most recent Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assaults estimates that roughly 26,000 service members experienced sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact in 2012, an increase of 6% from the previous year.

According to the Department of Defense, sexual assault refers to “a range of crimes, including rape, sexual assault, nonconsensual sodomy, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, and attempts to commit these offenses” (Defense, 2013). Incidents of sexual assault took place equally, in proportion to the number of troops in each division, throughout the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.  The vast majority of the persons investigated for sexual assault were male, under the age of 35, and enlisted.  Of the reports made, only 12% of the victims were male, but the Department of Defense estimates that 53% of all the assaults actually committed were committed by men against men.   The Department of Military Affairs does not break down their statistics by race or ethnic identity.  Nor does is estimate the total number of living veterans who may have experienced MST.

Social Work Interventions

Social workers have not adequately addressed the problem of men’s experiences of MST. There is little published research on male survivors of MST, and so far no scientific or theoretical discussions designed to guide social workers engaged in practice with the male veterans who have endured this terrible trauma. The 2012 “Handbook of Military Social Work” only discusses MST in a chapter on women in the Military, utterly ignoring the phenomenon.  A different guide for social work with veterans published the same year includes a chapter on MST but only briefly touches upon male survivors.  What is especially needed is a body of literature from social workers, psychologists, and other behavioral health professionals who have worked directly with male veterans suffering from combat- and military sexual trauma.

One very helpful, recent resource is the forthcoming documentary film that social worker Geri Lynn Weinstein-Matthews and her husband, Michael Matthews, have produced.

“Justice Denied” examines sexual assault and rape against men in the U.S. armed forces.  Michael’s experience of rape as a 19 year-old airman is mentioned above (Evans, 2012).  An NASW blog, “Social Workers Speak” has included a few references to male soldiers suffering from MST, but the NASW needs to bring much more attention to this topic (NASW, 2013).

Conclusions and Recommendations

Military sexual trauma is a serious affliction affecting thousands of male veterans and military service personnel, whose problems social workers have only recently begin to understand. Like many people, I originally understood the problem solely as a women’s issue, since the increasing numbers of women soldiers and increasingly expanded roles for women in the service has brought this topic to the foreground of public discussion.  Recently changed policies and slowly changing attitudes towards homosexual soldiers has made it easier for men to speak out.  Sexually traumatized men are not homosexual by virtue of having been attacked, of course, and, in fact, most of the men who rape or sexually assault other men in the military are heterosexual.  As I explain above, sexual assault is a means of domination, of demonstrating masculinity.  It has very little to do with sexual desire.  Yet until recently men who reported that they had been assaulted were, tragically and unjustly, regarded as homosexual and therefore dismissed dishonorably from service.

Former victim testifies before a Senate committee investigating military sexual trauma. AP photo by Carolyn Kaster via KiroTV.com

Former victim testifies before a Senate committee investigating military sexual trauma. AP photo by Carolyn Kaster via KiroTV.com

Male-on-male sexual assault illuminates the fragility and complexity of masculine sexuality in general and illuminates the highly constructed nature of gender identity.  Mild assault as well as violent rape can damage a man’s psychological and spiritual understanding of himself as a “man,” especially in a culture with particularly rigid and narrow notions of masculinity and femininity.  The fault lies not in the man, but rather in the culture at large.

I’d like to see many more seminars for clinicians as well as survivors on the spiritual damage that MST inflicts on men as well as on our culture, seminars that would focus on the spiritual poverty of masculinism and patriarchy in general.  But therapists also need much more training and guidance in working with men who have survived this biologically and psychologically damaging trauma.

Social workers need to build new understandings of how to address and approach men who traditionally do not seek therapeutic healing, and we also need to advocate for a broader discussion of the issue in general.   I’d like to see government funding for scientific studies as well as for training social workers to engage this particularly vulnerable and forgotten population.

This will not be easy.  Men, especially military men who have served their country as soldiers, don’t want to be treated as victims.  Therefore we need to find novel and sensitive ways to discuss their experiences in ways that uphold their sense of themselves as strong, independent, and honorable human beings, respected members of the community, and beloved fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, and grandfathers.

References

Affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans. (2010). Military Sexual Trauma.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (2001). Masculine Domination. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Burgess, Ann W., Slattery, Donna M., & Herlihy, Patricia A. (2013). Military Sexual Trauma: A Silent Syndrome. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 51(2), 20-26. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/02793695-20130109-03

Calhoun, Rachel Kimerling and Karen S. (1994). Somatic Symptoms, Social Support, and Treatment Seeking Among Sexual Assault Victims. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(2), 333-340.

Campbell, R., Dworkin, E., & Cabral, G. (2009). An ecological model of the impact of sexual assault on women’s mental health. Trauma Violence Abuse, 10(3), 225-246. doi: 10.1177/1524838009334456

Chao, Linda L., Yaffe, Kristine, Neylan, Thomas C., Rothlind, Johannes C., Meyerhoff, Dieter J., & Weiner, Michael W. (2010). Hippocampal atrophy in young veterans with PTSD and cognitive impairment: A potential link between PTSD and dementia. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 6(4, Supplement), S286. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2010.05.943

Dao, James. (2013). In debate over military sexual assault, men are overlooked victims, New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/us/in-debate-over-military-sexual-assault-men-are-overlooked-victims.html?pagewanted=all

Defense, Department of. (2013). Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military

Donna L. Washington, MD, MPH, Elizabeth M. Yano, PhD, MSPH, James McGuire, PhD, MSW , Vivian Hines, MSW, ACSW , Martin Lee, PhD, & Lillian Gelberg, MD, MSPH. (2010). Risk factors for Homelessness among Women Veterans. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 21.

Duell, Mark. (2011, 4 April 2011). ‘I was in the middle of the viper’s pit’: Soldier describes gang rape as male-on-male sexual assault in the military increases, Mailonline. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1373270/Male-male-sexual-assault-soldiers-increases-Greg-Jeloudov-reports-gang-rape.html

Evans, Heidi. (2012). Majority of sexual assaults and rapes commited in military in 2011 were against men, New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/majority-sexual-assaults-rapes-committed-military-2011-men-article-1.1150235

Herman, Judith. (1992, 1997). Trama and Recovery: The aftermath of violence–from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

Kelly, M. M., Vogt, D. S., Scheiderer, E. M., Ouimette, P., Daley, J., & Wolfe, J. (2008). Effects of military trauma exposure on women veterans’ use and perceptions of Veterans Health Administration care. J Gen Intern Med, 23(6), 741-747. doi: 10.1007/s11606-008-0589-x

Kelly, U. A., Skelton, K., Patel, M., & Bradley, B. (2011). More than military sexual trauma: interpersonal violence, PTSD, and mental health in women veterans. Res Nurs Health, 34(6), 457-467. doi: 10.1002/nur.20453

Kimerling, R., Gima, K., Smith, M. W., Street, A., & Frayne, S. (2007). The Veterans Health Administration and military sexual trauma. Am J Public Health, 97(12), 2160-2166. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.092999

Kubrik, Stanely (Writer). (1987). Full Metal Jacket.

Maguen, S., Cohen, B., Ren, L., Bosch, J., Kimerling, R., & Seal, K. (2012). Gender differences in military sexual trauma and mental health diagnoses among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Womens Health Issues, 22(1), e61-66. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2011.07.010

Mary Ann Boyd, Wanda Bradshaw, and Marceline Robinson. Mental Health Issues of Women Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Arch Psychiatr Nurs, 27(1). doi: 10.1016/j.apnu.2012.10.005

NASW. (2013).  Retrieved from http://www.socialworkersspeak.org/hollywood-connection/justice-denied-will-look-at-sexual-assault-and-rape-against-men-in-the-military.html – sthash.pgssBZj5.dpuf

Rowe, Erin L., Gradus, Jaimie L., Pineles, Suzanne L., Batten, Sonja V., & Davison, Eve H. (2009). Military Sexual Trauma in Treatment-Seeking Women Veterans. Military Psychology, 21(3), 387.

Sharon Valente, PhD FAAN, & Callie Wight, RN C MA. (2007). Military Sexual Trauma: Violence and Sexual Abuse. MILITARY MEDICINE, 172.

Turchik, Jessica A., & Wilson, Susan M. (2010). Sexual assault in the U.S. military: A review of the literature and recommendations for the future. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(4), 267-277. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2010.01.005

Turse, Nick. (2013). Tomgram: Nick Turse, A Rape in Wartime.  Retrieved from From: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175662/

So I’m thinking about my cat


while sitting outside my kitchen on the porch in my garden that I planted myself with peonies, roses, lavender, sage, rosemary, parsley, thyme, greek oregano, lilies, lilac, irises, baptista, or false indigo, and morning glory, and basil, cilantro, and white wisteria.  And tulips and hyacinths in the spring, when you can’t believe that anything is flowering because it has been dark and cold for so long you forgot what green looked like.

And I’m thinking that I love him, of course.  He’s the first being who came here and stayed, and only after much upset and dissatisfaction on both sides.  We never seemed to be able to please each other utterly, even though we called one another “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” and had not made such a serious commitment in years, and it has lasted way longer than we ever thought it would.  And neither one of us is even considering living somewhere else.

Sometimes he seems so aloof, so who-gives-a-shit-about you, and at other times he’s so needy I feel like I”m suffocating.  You know?  I mean, I adore him.  But he’s so difficult.  Every man who comes over, it seems, gets the royal treatment.  It’s as though he cares more for them than he does for me.  I understand that it’s just an act, a form of politeness, and that finally it’s me he loves best.  I’m the one.  And  I even get something out of the arrangement because he makes the guy feel really good, and when I say, “o, he loves you best of all,” the guy always falls for it and starts to thinking that he’s the shit, that he’s got me, that he’s in control.  When actually it is I who am manipulating him.  The cat helps me with this.

Peer Gynt Considers His Next Move

He’s big and orange and stripy, like a mini-tiger, and fat, and lazy, and lazier and fatter every year.   He complains loudly when he wants attention, or when breakfast isn’t served promptly enough.  Sometimes he even paws at my bedroom door.  Drives me crazy.  Not in a good way.  Sometimes I just don’t seem to have the energy.  I love him and think he’s gorgeous, sexy, but I just can’t go there tonight.  Thank you so much honey for understanding.  I’m soooooooo tired.  Then there are other nights when HE (can you believe it?) just couldn’t be bothered.  I mean I know he knows I’m here,  that he sees me, even wants me, but god damn if he’s going to show me that.  No.  It’s I’m just gonna sit here in this chair and stare at the wall as if you didn’t even exist.  And see how that feels.  Yeah.  That’s what he’s doing right now.  Sitting on the chair, looking off into the night, ignoring the airplane whooshing by overhead, the cloud of gold where the streetlight hits the trees, my fingers clicking.  But we sense these things and one another.  We know we’re ignoring one another, the bus roaring down Negley, the silence on the grass.  It’s too early in the summer for cicadas or crickets.  Just the dull irritation of a motorbike in the distance, the sea-shell sound of the city behind it.

International Women’s Day


3/8/10

Today, March 8, I am blogging in commemoration of International Women’s Day.  The great German socialist and feminist Clara Zetkin is credited for having invented the memorial as part of her fight for women’s suffrage and for better working conditions for women and men everywhere.

Clara Zetkin

The socialist movement had always been an international campaign, part of a worldwide movement to resist the psychological, economic, and political damages inflicted by a capitalist economy in which every aspect of life is tied to the market.  Zetkin and other socialist feminists around the world understood what so many of us have only lately come to understand, which is that when you let the bankers and the wealthiest corporations and employers do whatever they want, without any regulation whatsoever, things fall apart. And when things fall apart, women and children are the first to suffer and the last to recover.

It is worth remembering that while the first International Women’s Day celebrations, held in Germany, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland in 1911, were wildly successful (thousands of women turned out for meetings, and men were happy enough to acknowledge women’s many unpaid services to the family and the state as mothers, wives, and caretakers with gifts of flowers and cake) women did not win the right to vote in Switzerland until 1990.   Danish women won full voting rights in 1915, Austrian and German women in 1918.  Women in the United Arab Emirates still do not have full voting rights, which is an outrage.  As we know from long and hard experience, even once women have won the right to elect government officials to office, they do not always vote in their interests.  Many cultural factors work against them.  These include widespread and deeply entrenched male-centered assumptions, and various forms of symbolic and real violence that prevent women from knowing and employing their true worth and power.

Attitudes that encouraged both sexes to regard women as inferior and relatively unimportant members of society led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 148 workers, mostly women and girls, died because their employers had locked them into their work area.  The tragedy, which became a centerpiece of American celebrations of International Women’s Day during the first part of the 20th century, exemplifies the ways in which gender discrimination and capitalism work together to oppress women.

Consider what is happening today, March 8, in India, where people take International Women’s Day far more seriously than they do in the United States.  Two political parties are threatening the stability of the government because they refuse to support a bill that would ensure that one-third of the seats in Parliament be awarded to the group that makes up more than one-half of India’s population.  Here’s a country where women have been voting since 1935, and where a woman (Indira Ghandi) was elected to the highest government seat of power in 1966, continues to thwart equal political rights for women. And yet  long-ingrained scorn for women’s intellectual and governing abilities persist.

And what about here, at home, in the USA?  Hollywood–one of the great bastions of sexist powers in the world–is currently reeling with self-congratulation and shock because it finally, finally, after 82 years, managed to grant an Oscar to a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow.  Obviously, the problem was not that women haven’t been making great movies all this time, but rather that men–and some of the women voting–could not bring themselves to put the two words “woman” and “director” together.  O, we’re perfectly comfortable letting women direct women–but in this country we have frighteningly tenacious antipathies to letting women do the things that directors do: oversee, govern, supervise, other men.  Just think of the way that the same Americans who think they’re the most enlightened people on the planet brutally attacked Hillary Clinton when she ran for president.   Consider William Kristol‘s not-funny joke about “white women,” which he thoughtlessly told right next to one, on Fox News.  Think of the stupid Hillary nut-crackers, or the voodoo dolls which allegedly gave men the ability to power to “stick it to her” that they feared she was going to take away from them.

Mosquitos with bad attitudes like Kristol are, fortunately, not the greatest threat to international women’s freedom, to the dignity, political, social, and economic well-being of global women today.  But corporations such as Fox News may be.  As the internationally renowned gender theorist  Raewyn Connell observes, “the corporation is the dominant form of economic organization and the key institution of developed capitalism,” and corporations have always been gendered institutions.  Overwhelmingly owned, directed, and managed by men, corporations promote a gendered division of labor that relegates women to the lowest paid and least respected jobs.  Even in countries where significant numbers of women have reached middle management, the so-called “glass ceiling” keeps women from positions of senior authority.  Congress studied this problem in 1991 and found that, among the biggest corporations in this country, 97 per cent of senior managers were White, 95 to 97 per cent of them were male, and of the top 1000 companies only 2 had women CEOs.  Linda Wirth, who examined the problem globally in 1997, states,

Almost universally, women have failed to reach leading positions in major corporations…irrespective of their abilities. Women generally fare best in industries employing large numbers of women, such as health and community services and the hotel and catering industry.

As in the global media, the international business community seems to be comfortable letting women direct women, but not other men.  Chalk one up for Bigelow.

Transnational corporations work hand-in-hand with states, most of which are also dominated by men, and constitute the largest business organizations on the planet.  They operate in global markets of capital, commodities, services, and labor, that are also strongly gender-structured.  Recent feminist research shows that these markets, which are very weakly regulated, foster a misogynist and aggressive trading culture.  This masculinist culture is often reinforced by the global media flooded with pornographic images of women as sex-crazed objects and servants of men’s desires.  With few exceptions, sports programming also dishes out images of hyper-masculine, heteronormative, muscular machismo.

While the new media, especially the World Wide Web, nurtures important sites of resistance, such as all the blogs participating in International Women’s Day, the trend that characterizes transnational corporations, the global market, and the global media does not bode well for gender equity. The research shows that we are increasingly bound together as women and men, as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons in this global marketplace.  We therefore need, now more than ever, to revive the original call for justice in the workplace that Copenhagen International Women’s Conference and Clara Zetkin sounded in 1911.

The Rapists at College


The commonplace that men who rape women are misogynists bears repeating. A recent study by psychologist David Lisak shows that college rapists are overwhelmingly repeat offenders (9 out of 10) who deliberately seek out vulnerable women, especially women who have been drinking. “When compared to men who do not rape,” Lisak observes, “these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial.”
In response to this observation, Jacylyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (authors of the book Yes Means Yes and blog by that name), wisely note

Guys who seem to hate women … do. If they sound like they don’t like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome … they’re telling the truth. That’s what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it.

NPR recently covered the story, and note that David Lisak interviewed more than 2000 college men over 20 years. 1 in 16 of those interviewed men answered yes to both of the following questions:

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?”

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn’t cooperate?”

You might think that these schmucks would have been reluctant to admit to these acts. Lisak reports that the men he interviewed were “eager” to talk about them. “They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”

Lisak also found that the men who admit to coercing or forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse do not generally consider what they did rape. These men also typically rely on the fear or shame of young women to prevent them from reporting the rapes. They want the women they have coerced into unwanted sex to believe that they are somehow to blame for what they have done to them. They also know that the culture on college campuses discourages victims from coming forward and shields perpetrators from detection and conviction in the criminal justice system. He reports:

In the course of 20 years of interviewing these undetected rapists, in both research and forensic settings, it has been possible for me to distill some of the common characteristics of the modus operandi of these sex offenders. These undetected rapists:

  • are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
  • plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
  • use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
  • use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats –backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
  • use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.

College rapists are criminal sex offenders who are largely undetected, unpunished, and unrepentant.

Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself hanging around with someone who openly or covertly expresses his disrespect and hatred for women. Listen and believe what he is saying.