How wartime sexual violence affects men

Philipp Schulz

Image credit: Philipp Schulz.

More than twenty-five years ago, in June 1991, Otim Francis* was arrested by a group of Ugandan government soldiers:

‘They took us and dumped us in a hole in the trading centre. The hole was dug by the soldiers and they would use it as a cell. Then in the morning, they would pick us one by one and tie us on the tree and you were beaten. They beat us seriously, and then took us back to the hole and started raping us, again one by one. We were many, and we were given allegations that we were rebels.’

The violations committed against Otim were part of the wider spectrum of military warfare operations against the Acholi population in northern Uganda by the National Resistance Army, both as punishment for allegedly supporting an armed rebellion and as revenge for violence committed by soldiers from the north during previous episodes of conflict. During the early phases of the war in northern Uganda, crimes of sexual violence against men were so widespread that the local population invented a new vocabulary to describe these acts as tek-gungu — ‘to bend over’ (gungu) ‘hard’ or ‘forcefully’ (tek). But despite this prevalence of sexual violence against men, these crimes remain largely silenced and much remains unknown about their dynamics and about survivors’ lived realities.

Understanding survivors’ experiences

Describing the impact of the violations, Otim explained that he ‘started feeling useless and not man enough’. It is widely argued — including in northern Uganda — that sexual violence against men compromises survivors’ understanding of themselves as men, by rendering them weak and helpless in contradiction to stereotypical masculine expectations. Yet the manner in which survivors experience this shattering of their male identity remains only poorly understood — both in general and in northern Uganda. Ultimately, this means that questions of how, exactly, crimes of sexual violence in northern Uganda impact on male survivors’ masculine identities have not been addressed.

In this blog article, I argue that the impact of wartime male rape is a dynamic and complex process. I stress that it should be seen as a protracted experience which is perpetuated over time through social interactions, health implications and a lack of gender-sensitive medical provisions.

Perpetuated harms: protect, provide and procreate

In contrast to my assertions, most existing studies on the topic tend to treat the effects of sexual violence on masculine identities as one-time events, exclusively linked to the violent acts, without taking into account the violations’ after-effects. To fully understand the impact of these crimes, however, the layered and continuing harms experienced by survivors need to be addressed.

In the context of northern Ugandan society’s heteropatriarchal gender hierarchy, physical acts of sexual violence — and in particular penetrative anal rape — subordinate male survivors along gendered hierarchies. This is as, according to Acholi constructions of gender and sexuality, men are supposed to actively penetrate and women to be passively penetrated. If a man is subjected to penetrative rape, he thus involuntarily assumes a female sexual role and character and is thereby rendered subordinate to other men in the hierarchical gender order.

In most of the existing literature on conflict-related sexual violence against men, the analyses stop at this point, centring solely on subordination as a result of sexual acts. However, in my recent article in International Affairs I show that the gendered effects of sexual violence extend beyond the physical violations, they are perpetuated over time through different physical, psychological and physiological consequences which result in sexual and gendered harms. On the one hand, these intersecting harms signify survivors’ inabilities to protect themselves and their families, a cardinal task of being a man. One male survivor explained that:

admitting the violation would mean that I have not been able to protect myself, which means I am no longer a man.

Sexual violence against men also has numerous physical consequences that result in many long-lasting health complications, including anal rupture and bleeding, as well as abdominal, waist and back pain. These effects mean that survivors often cannot do any manual labour or agricultural work. This has a direct implication for survivors’ abilities to provide for their families, another role which a man is expected fulfil as a breadwinner and head of a household. This, again, challenges survivors’ masculine identities. As one survivor explained:

I am not a real man anymore because ever since the violence I cannot do any work so I cannot provide for my wife and for my children and family. So that is why I am now no longer a man.

Another fundamental aspect of the impact of sexual violence on male survivors’ gender identities are physiologically conditioned inabilities or difficulties to achieve or sustain an erection or to feel interest in or desire for sexual intercourse. For instance, one survivor attested that he ‘cannot have sex with [his] wife anymore as a result of the violation’. Due to these effects, several survivors reportedly were unable to have any more children. According to Acholi gender and identity constructs, however, sexual virility — coupled with the ability to father children — constitute central markers of manhood. The inability to fulfil these functions also translates into an implied inability to be a real man, according to hegemonic and culturally-determined understandings of men as heterosexual, strong and responsible.

In combination, the intersecting and layered harms caused by the physical, psychological, financial and sexual consequences of sexual violence impact upon male survivors’ gender identities in a variety of ways. They strike directly and multiple levels of what it means to be a man in Acholi society. This key insight — that the impact of sexual violence on gender identities is a layered and compounded process, rather than a singular event — challenges the ways in which these crimes are commonly understood and helps us understand the complex dynamics of wartime rape.


*Otim Francis is not his real name, but a pseudonym, to protect the survivor’s identity.

Philipp Schulz is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen.

His recent article, ‘Displacement from gendered personhood: sexual violence and masculinities in northern Uganda’ was published in the September 2018 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article online here.