IN AN EXCRUCIATING New York Times article, Rukmini Callimachi details in painful and exact terms the system of sex slavery of Yazidi women and girls that ISIS has set in place. Without any boundaries of sexual permissibility apart from the prohibition against sex with pregnant women, ISIS warriors and followers pray to God before and after raping and sexually destroying their Yazidi captives as if they were thereby fulfilling a deeply religious obligation. If we possess any sense that there are absolute moral boundaries, ISIS’s practices of torture, slavery, and rape cross them, defiantly.
Let us look at those boundaries for a moment. After saying everyone has the “right to life, liberty and security of person,” there occurs the first substantive and specific article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” To enslave an individual is the systematic denial that they possess equal human dignity; enslaving is now the paradigm act of what it means to deny others equal human worth. To be a slave is either to be a mere thing, a tool, for the other; or a peculiar kind of ‘human-thing,’ a human that qua human has no worth in him or herself and exists solely for the benefit of the enslaver. In this respect, the link between enslaving and religious rape could not be more perspicuous: Yazidi religion is taken by ISIS to fall outside the pale of those religious practices suitable for humans, peoples of the Book, who are God’s creatures; slavery and sexual abuse is the use proper to the less than fully human.
Given the easy path from slavery to rape, and rape’s persistence as a fundamental form of degradation and dehumanization, one might have thought that the next article of the Declaration would mention rape. But rape is not mentioned in the next article, instead one finds (Article 5): “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Despite much argument concerning women’s rights and equality, I know of no discussion of rape in the run-up to the Declaration. A reasonable hypothesis for this lacuna is that the authors of the Declaration considered rape as one, explicit form of torture – an hypothesis that easily falls in place when we recall that, since ancient times, rape has been used as a form of torture, as if corporeal torture and rape were nothing other than the sexual division of torturous labor’s objects.
ISIS’s religious rape practices would be morally heinous and abominable even if they were not part of a system of slavery. Part of the awfulness of slavery is, precisely, its function as mechanism for licensing rape and torture, or, better, rape as torture. Rape is torture: it is this thought that has been missing from recent discussions of rape. Getting this idea into view is complicated because sex is complicated, and all things being considered, while we officially revile rape, we also – secretly, sotto voce, unconsciously – consider it the dark side of sex, part of the danger of sex, the underside of sex’s threading together of pleasure and pain. Rape is none of these things, however; rape is torture.
Let me begin again. Sex is always complex and risky. In it we physically expose ourselves to the touch of another in ways we do not otherwise allow. And, at least at its heights, sex involves letting go of the prerogatives of will, control, and mastery in order to surrender to bodily involuntariness: we are overcome and undone, we quiver with delight. And sex is messy. Mixed in with all the excitement and joy, sexual life is laced with failure and unhappiness. There are all sorts of unhappy and bad sex: sex we regret from the first kiss, or halfway through (“This feels weird”), or the morning after, or years later (“Why did I sleep with him?”). There is also just bad sex, sex in which we feel we are being used, in bed with someone who is utterly self-absorbed, or who has no clue how to give sexual pleasure, or who is into stuff we find disgusting.
However messy sex is, rape is not a form of bad sex — say, very bad sex, terrible sex, the worst sex ever. Rape is not sex at all from the perspective of the victim, even as it exploits the victim’s powers for sexual pleasure. It is, rather, torture.
Consider this: The torturer’s strategy and goal is to reduce his victim to his body. What is it for a human to be “reduced” to his body given that we are anyway bodily beings?
Human embodiment has a dual structure: we are the kinds of beings that both are our bodies and have our bodies. More precisely, the human body must be conceived as having both voluntary and involuntary dimensions. The involuntary body is the body that sweats, blushes, hiccups, excretes, menstruates, gets pregnant, lactates, feels pains and pleasures, the body that rages with anger and quakes with fear, the body that feels the touch of every object, and too the body that laughs hysterically and cries uncontrollably. The voluntary body, the body I have, is the body that is a vehicle for action, the body that intends the world through action, the body that can be so absorbed in its doing that it disappears from focal consciousness, with only the object of the activity present: my fingers dashing over the keyboard as I simply play the sonata, only the sonata itself as the object of consciousness.
All human experience involves a coordination of the voluntary and involuntary body, where the correct or appropriate relation between the voluntary and involuntary body is set in place by social rules. Torture depends on working the difference between the involuntary and the voluntary body differently. In torture, the victim is reduced to her involuntary body, while the torturer effectively takes possession of all voluntariness and agency; the torturer has the victim’s body. Hence the victim’s body is no longer hers; she is a being who can suffer and weep and cry out and sweat and excrete – but these involuntary happenings occur beyond any possibility of control.
If in torture I can no longer call my body ‘mine’, then torture dispossesses me of my body. And it is just this that rape is about: a radical act of dispossession through violation. What torture accomplishes through pain, rape accomplishes through violation – penetration without consent. Rape too is a medium of communication, typically between a man and a woman, in which the message is that bodily voluntariness belongs essentially to the man and bodily involuntariness belongs to the woman as what is proper to her. The work of rape is to make the difference between bodily voluntariness and bodily involuntariness into a sexual and moral fate: the man appropriating all voluntariness to himself as he deposits the woman in bodily involuntariness. In insisting that his victim is only her involuntary body, he is insisting her body is his. Not only does slavery license torturous rape, but rape enacts the fundamental act of possession that constitutes slavery. Rape cultures are slave cultures in waiting.
Rape is a weapon in the sexual wars, and is meant at such; rape remains patriarchy’s most brutal means and a standing assertion of its end. Legal reform is important but does not answer to the persistence of rape in a presumptively liberal culture in which it has no place. Until there is a pervasive and overwhelming culture of intolerance for rape, it will continue; until, say, fellow soldiers and fraternity members take full moral responsibility for their communities – by not permitting rape to occur when it can be prevented, and turning in and testifying against rapists – rape will continue. The slave trade and rape practices of ISIS are indeed horrific; our condemnation of their barbarism would be more convincing if the implicit tolerance for rape in our own culture were not so pervasive.