‘Like A Machete’: Is Viagra A Weapon Of War Rape In Libya?

My friend and colleague Mark Kersten has been drawing my attention over the last weeks to a spate of stories about Libya in which it is claimed Gaddafi has been distributing Viagra as an inducement to sexual violence against ‘enemy’ civilian populations. Colum Lynch reported in late April that Ambassador Susan Rice had cited the use of Viagra and evidence of sexual violence during a meeting of the UN Security Council (although this itself is at least third hand – Lynch seems to have picked up the details from Reuters who were passed the information by a UN diplomat who was in the room). The story seems to have originated, or first surfaced, at The Daily Mail, which claimed “numerous reports” of Viagra use.

The testimony of Suleiman Refadi, an Ajdabiya surgeon, in this Al Jazeera piece is the closest thing to a direct claim that Viagra has been distributed to troops. But, as Lynch points out, Human Rights Watch followed up his allegations and say that Refadi had “no direct evidence”, which I assume means either that he himself hadn’t seen the Viagra and condoms, or that some had been found, but not in any pattern that would associate them with a strategy of war rape. Human Rights Watch have a number of reports and commentaries addressing rape in Libya, but do not seem to have found the Viagra claims credible enough to include. Now the International Criminal Court is investigating. Luis Moreno-Ocampo intimates that he has solid evidence for the claims and declares: “It’s like a machete…It’s new. Viagra is a tool of massive rape.”

That kind of blanket statement makes me suspicious. Reports are so far conflating (or not sufficiently distinguishing) two different claims: 1) that government forces are engaged in rape in Libya; and 2) that Viagra (and sometimes condoms) are handed out as an incentive or aid for that. Claim 1 is entirely plausible and there is already good evidence for it in the case of Libya. Elisabeth Jean Wood has done some important early work on the question of variation in wartime sexual violence and her early conclusions are that there are some contexts in which rape doesn’t occur in war. But the number of such cases is very small. Rape in war is overwhelmingly the norm. This should lead us to a number of questions about type, degree, form, causes and the exact sense in which we mean ‘tool’, ‘weapon’ and ‘strategy’. But reports of rape by soldiers are not in themselves at all surprising.

What is new is the second claim. To my knowledge, this is the first time that Viagra use has been linked to war rape. Moreover, it is more common for it to be claimed that condoms are not used, since this makes the spread of disease and infection among feminised enemies easier. The idea that Viagra is needed for soldiers to rape is not credible. The amount of sexual violence recorded in the DRC does not seem to have required the prop of stimulant drugs. The scale of rape and violation that marked the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the Bosnian rape camps and the Rwandan genocide, amongst a litany of others, proceeded on a sufficiently vicious and sickening level in the absence of Pfizer’s artificial genital stimulants. Nor does it seem that Viagra would work for these purposes, since it doesn’t really work for men without erectile dysfunction and can even be painful. And that’s leaving aside the stupidity of conflating ‘rape’ with ‘penetration by a pleasured penis’: a common association which reduces rape to an extension of ‘normal’ sexual lust, rather than a much more complex form of sexualised power, especially in periods of violence when it is purportedly being used as a tactic or strategy.Of course, it may be that Gaddafi believes the use of Viagra to be effective and so is pursuing the policy despite its ineffectiveness. Or that the Viagra and condoms were planted on his enforcers not for actual use but to promote fear that they might be used. This opens up a series of interesting associations. On one level, it conforms entirely to the preferred image of The Colonel as Mad Dog, one suddenly useful again, but no more convincing for that. At another, there is the association (whether for readers of these stories or for the participants themselves) of rape with an ambiguous masculinity: both a sign of sexual prowess (look how many times he got it up!) and of sexual failure (what kind of half-man needs Viagra to enjoy the spoils of war!).

Given yesterday’s post on atrocity ratcheting in rape stories, the context of this claim should also give pause. As far as we currently know, the two initial sources for the story are unverified claims by a Libyan doctor and a story in The Daily Mail, justly notorious as a hot-bed of lies, half-truths and sensationalist fictions. It was deployed, apparently without any further intelligence or detail, in a closed UN Security Council meeting in which one Permanent Five member was trying to get others to commit to expanding military intervention. Details of these discussions, focusing predominantly on the Viagra dimension rather than on better indicators (numbers of Internally Displaced Persons, sieges of towns, generalised attacks on civilians, violations of the Laws of War, etcetera.) were then leaked, presumably in an effort to put further pressure on states to commit resources, legitimacy and arms.

All this suggests to me that caution is in order. Not just because the claims may not be true. As important is resisting the dynamic of atrocity ratcheting. We shouldn’t need stories about Viagra to think that bad things are happening in Libya, or to care about them. And whether violation is sheathed or unsheathed should not determine our behaviours or provoke our consciences.

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5 thoughts on “‘Like A Machete’: Is Viagra A Weapon Of War Rape In Libya?

  1. Fantastic piece Paul – really thought-provoking and interesting. A brief point and a question:

    First, your conclusion reminds me of what numerous scholars/practitioners say about whether genocide is or isn’t occurring in particular contexts (esp. Darfur). Some observers, rather cogently I think, criticize the need to label particular scenarios genocide, not because it’s unimportant, but because it belies a logic which suggests that *only* if it’s genocide should we do something about it. The view seems to suggest that violence that is almost, but not quite “genocide”, doesn’t demand action.

    Second, I wonder what you think of the conflation of rape as a weapon of war with weapons such as the “machete”. Is the comparison/conflation necessary and/or good or is it merely a rhetorical tool, describing a newly recognized but neglected “weapon of war”, ie. sexual violence, as the same as one of the best-known and most brutal weapons, ie. machetes. Is anything lost when we think of sexual violence in conflict in the same terms as a machete?

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    • Hey Mark,

      Good points. On the machete question, it’s 6 of one and half a dozen of the other, which is an antiquated way of saying I don’t really think it’s determinate either way, or rather that it’s a heavily contextual issue.

      On the one hand the machete analogy is good for separating rape from sex, identifying it as (at least potentially) a chosen weapon in the same way as aerial bombardment or starving out a city. It’s a kind of politicising gesture. Amnesty and others have used the phrase ‘rape is cheaper than bullets’ to make the same point, and I think there is still a need for that kind of sloganeering to get people’s attention and, in a discipline as blind to gender as IR, to repeat the point that rape is a part of war and deserves analytical and political attention.

      On the other hand, it ignores some important aspects of war rape and promotes a disturbing and incorrect reading of who rapes and why. The relationship between sex, violence and power in rape is obviously vexed, and there’s some very cogent and interesting feminist theory on this (anyone interested might want to look at Ann J. Cahill’s RETHINKING RAPE (Cornell Uni Press, 2001) for starters). Speaking in terms of machetes makes rape sound no different to bodily harm and it is different, not only in its direct form, but also in terms of its social meaning and its consequences for survivors. Indeed, it’s commonly for survivors of rape in peace and in war to say that being badly beaten or mutilated would be preferable to rape.

      Moreover ‘machete’ is a telling analogy. It automatically brings to mind Rwanda and low-tech barbarity. So it’s implicitly suggested that it is savages who rape and that they rape because they’re savages. And obviously to speak of savages is to invoke a particular racialised imaginary – the figure of the rapacious African warrior. We don’t think of American GIs in Vietnam or Soviet troops in 1945 Germany or Serb forces as the kinds of people who use machetes. They’re made invisible in their whiteness. So I wouldn’t use that particular phrase, and I think it’s telling that it’s the one that occurred to Moreno-Ocampo.

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  2. I also just noticed that I wrote “the preferred image of The Colonel as Mad Dog, one suddenly useful again, but no less convincing for that” when I meant “the preferred image of The Colonel as Mad Dog, one suddenly useful again, but no MORE convincing for that”.

    That’s now been rectified. The point is that ‘weirdo Gaddafi gives useless drugs to his haphazard cultish troops’ is a propaganda message, not an astute analysis of the forms of political identity and allegiance underlying the Libyan state and Gaddafi’s realpolitik.

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  3. Pingback: Is Viagra Causing More Rapes? - Politicol News

  4. Pingback: Krigspropaganda under Libyenkriget « Yasers hörna

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