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Equal Wrongs

The images of women abusing Iraqis, and having sex in front of them, are shocking. But in committing wartime atrocities, a woman can be just like a man.

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I find myself transfixed by the photo in the New York Times: The soldier stands, expressionless, holding a naked Iraqi prisoner like a dog on a leash. Days later, the cover of the Post brings more lurid news. Tapes shown at a congressional briefing picture the same Army reservist having sex with multiple partners (apparently consensual) in front of Iraqi prisoners. All of which would be shocking enough, of course, were the soldier in question not a woman.

Among the many dark tones that compose the ugly tableaux of the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal, one of the most striking is the femaleness of several of the perpetrators—Private First Class Lynndie England in particular. Women? Torturers? Cruel sexual exhibitionists? Impossible. Women are the more sexually conservative and empathic, not the more panting and sadistic, sex.

Or maybe not. The idea that women are innately gentle is a fantasy, and a historically recent one. Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, is depicted as wreathed in male human skulls; the cruel entertainments of the Romans drew audiences as female as they were male; Boudicca led her British troops bloodily into battle. But postindustrial Western society (see the nineteenth-century “Angel in the House” mystique) imagined that women were inherently kinder and more compassionate than men. Women’s maternality, under this ideology, made them the world’s peacemakers. Dominance, cruelty, and abuse were gendered male.

Sadly, many second-wave feminist theorists not only inherited this thinking; they appropriated it and dressed it in feminist garb. When I was a baby feminist, leading feminist thinkers were insisting that if women ran the world, there would be no sadism or war. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon looked at violent pornography and claimed that the impulse to sexually humiliate others was a function of male, and not female, sexual identity. This led to a muddleheaded belief that women were incapable of abuse, especially sexual abuse.

“Women? Torturers? Impossible. Women are the more empathic, not the sadistic, sex.”

This willed blind spot later fed moral absurdities. When Lorena Bobbitt cut off her abusive husband’s penis with a kitchen knife, a group of Los Angeles feminists took up the cry “Stop the violence.” They were referring to the husband’s domestic violence—not the wife’s knife-wielding. Feminists who believed in women’s innate moral superiority were simply unable to face the evidence: Women will abuse where they can, just as men will. Look at the data: Men who are sadistic tend to abuse women and children; women who are sadistic tend to abuse children. For both genders, abuse is a function of what you can get away with.

By all accounts, U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib were allowed—perhaps encouraged—to get away with a great deal. All the conditions said to lead to abuse were in place: an ideology of moral superiority on the part of the torturers; the positioning of the tortured as immediate threats; a climate of tolerance—or worse—from above. Faced with these conditions, some latently sadistic women did exactly what some latently sadistic men would do. (Before news of the sex tapes broke, England maintained that she was simply following a superior’s orders.)

If anything, women may turn out to be more likely than men to follow guidance that encourages torture. The same acculturation that leads a woman in the workplace to accept lower wages without speaking up could lead a woman soldier to hold a leash and smile without speaking up. Women are good at pleasing their bosses.

That women are just as capable as men of taking part in sexual spectacle, taped or otherwise, shouldn’t come as a shock, either. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this generation of soldiers, women and men, is more likely to engage in certain kinds of semi-public sex, and perhaps even torture, under the right conditions, than previous generations might have been—because of the desensitizing effect of pornography. The ubiquity of porn may be one reason that young GIs in this war were so willing to photograph, transmit, and engage in acts that mimic porn in both its more innocent and savage forms. Porn has blurred the line between clothed and unclothed, decent and indecent.

In the nineties, as a result of a major push by feminists and the Clinton administration, women were admitted to combat zones. Remember that debate? Opponents said women would cower and shrink—that they couldn’t engage as equals with men in war’s cruelty and degradations. If only.


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