My ex-wife used to say to me sometimes, in a tone that imputed that I was personally responsible or at least an accessory to the fact, “What is wrong with men?” This was invariably in response to some television report relating some truly awful atrocity somewhere in the world. Anyway, I would rally myself briefly to the defence of my gender by saying something like, “What’s wrong with men is that they never recover from the mothering of their early years.” Not a rational answer, I know, but anyone in a marriage knows that they are neither formulated, consummated or regulated on the basis of rationality. And anyway, I tended to believe, even then, with Oscar Wilde’s view that “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” But deep inside I did, and do, sometimes wonder what is wrong with men.
And nowhere do I find men’s behaviour more disquieting, more inexplicable and cruel, than in the case of rape. To bring out some of the vexed complexity of this question it is worth looking at the rape of men by men. In this case, the story of T.E. Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia, might be a useful case in point.
I don’t want to deal here with the argument about whether or not Lawrence was actually raped since ample evidence exists to support it as a real event or one simply invented by Lawrence himself. Neither am I ignoring the much more prevalent history of rape against women. What I am trying to do is look at the phenomenon through a different lens. The contextual facts surrounding Lawrence’s ordeal are relatively straightforward. In 1916, Lawrence, dressed in Arab clothing and working to mobilise the Arab tribes against the Turks, was arrested in the town of Deraa. He was not recognised but, according to his own memoirs (The Seven Pillars of Wisdom), was beaten and raped by Turkish soldiers. He later wrote, ”I gave away the only possession we are born into the world with – our bodily integrity,” The publishing of this in 1926 was even more confronting for the public than it would be today and sparked years of debate that has not yet abated. Lawrence represented man as warrior – what did his admission/story tell us about him and what did it say about men generally?
The key point here is that the rape of soldiers by soldiers has been a feature of human history for as long as war has been documented.
“This indignity was more often inflicted on members of the officer class in the belief it robbed them of their authority as a leader of men, sometimes resulting in the victims suicide. Gang rape was also considered a means of punishment in some cultures, the Romans, Persians, Ottomans and other societies practiced it.The Ottoman Turks were infamous for inflicting it throughout the Great War on captured enemy troops, beating and gang raping enemy officers often as a matter of due course. Prisons and garrisons often had personnel who specialized in this abuse, although there was nothing homosexual about it.
The Turkish soldiers perpetrating this war crime certainly never considered themselves gay, like male rapists in prison the act has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the attacker or victim. ‘It’s not about sexual gratification, rather a sexual aggressor using somebody else as a means of expressing their own power and control’.” (John Godl http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/telawrence.htm)
So what we find emerging is the notion of sexual behaviour as a means of control, as the exercise of a power differential. Even more worrying is to find that, at different times and within different cultures, it has also enjoyed varying degrees of institutionalisation. For Lawrence, the effects on his life were profound. In later years he paid to be beaten by other men, some say to exorcise his own rape, others that it was a form of denying and conquering his own sexual impulses.
So, what is wrong with men, why are they more likely to commit rape than women? I do not know but I think we will miss the answer if we look to hormonal or physiological differences between genders. It seems to me that operating at the core of some men’s psyche, and often at an unconscious level, is this need for power that, stripped of approved and formal avenues for expression, finds that expression in the debasing act of rape. Like so many aspects of sexual behaviour – sadism, masochism, fetishism – we too often look for meaning from the sexual act itself when, it seems likely, sex is merely the tangible enactment of something deeply rooted in our sense of ourselves.