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Iraqi Women and Torture, Part III Violence and Virtual Violence

by : Lila Rajiva
Thursday August 5, 2004 - 01:05

Despite a well-documented picture of under-reported sexualized violence, the major media has not shown any interest in pursuing cases of rape or abuse of Iraqi women by the US military. Instead, two stories about hoaxes or more accurately apparent hoaxes made the rounds earlier this year. They’re worth looking at to better understand what’s behind the seemingly artless way in which hoaxes and allegations of hoaxes creep into the factual history of abuse in Iraq.

On May 4, 2004, just when evidence of the rape of Iraqi women at Abu Ghraib threatened to become public, a BBC report by Paul Wood described a set of graphic photographs circulating on Arabic-language web sites that showed two Iraqi women in black burqas being raped at gunpoint by men wearing US Army uniforms. Probably aware of other torture pictures published in the Daily Mirror which the British government had charged were fraudulent, (1) Wood claimed that the rape photos looked inauthentic but offered no conclusive proof (2), only suggesting that the uniforms of the American soldiers depicted in them did not look genuine.

World Net Daily, a conservative American site, claims it discovered proof of the hoax when it was allegedly led to the porn sites, “Sex in War” and “Iraq Babes,” from which the fake photos originated by two anti-war Iraqi sources, but by then the Boston Globe had already published the pictures, as had a pro-Islamic site, Jihad Unspun, from where they ended up on many Arab news sites including Al Basrah. Both Al Basrah and the Globe eventually removed the photos after they were alerted, but Jihad Unspun insisted that they portrayed actual rapes in Iraq taken by pornographic filmmakers with the intention, all along, of posting them on American sites. To complicate the matter, other genuinely Islamist groups as well as the director of a group that monitors terror-related sites believe that Jihad Unspun may be a CIA creation intended to find out who visits or orders Bin Laden videos. (3)

If the “fake rape” photos did not worm their way out of the porn site accidentally, we have several interesting possibilities on our hands: someone who was aware of the abuse that was going on but, either unable to find proof or unwilling to compromise victims by using real photos, used pre-existing porn to bolster their case (4); antiwar forces planted the story to add to the scandal, although this is less likely since they would be especially cautious about losing credibility by posting fake photos, and after all, they helped uncover the hoax; the photos were planted by American intelligence to cast doubts on the genuine rape stories that were beginning to come out; or finally, the photos were made at home by soldiers or contractors perhaps in Iraq or Eastern Europe where there is widespread trafficking and prostitution of women.

There also remains the troubling possibility that the pictures aren’t faked at all and did not originate as commercial porn but were photos of actual rape or prostitution that ended up on the porn sites by accident or as the deliberate act of a commercial pornography ring.

This is quite within the realm of things. DynCorp, the private corporation that now holds the contract to train Iraqi police, was sued successfully by its own employees for its involvement in a prostitution ring in Kosovo where it was hired to provide security services to the U.N. and American forces. (5) The ring involved sex-slavery, pornography, and drugs and victimized Bosnian women who had previously been raped or imprisoned by Serb forces, including girls as young as 14. One DynCorp employee pled guilty to photographing himself raping a 14-year-old girl.

Whatever the truth behind it, the Globe hoax story makes it amply clear that it’s no longer possible to judge the status of a representation, that is, its level of authenticity, by its appearance or even by its venue. Wartime rape can surface on porn sites and apparently commercial or homemade porn can be made on the battleground. When “Sex in War,” for instance, advertises itself as having “exclusive rape hard-core content” drawn from the war in Iraq, can we be entirely certain that its contents are staged?

Caution about fraudulent pictures and claims may be one explanation why journalists haven’t been asking questions about Iraqi women at Abu Ghraib, but it seems an unsatisfactory one given that they’ve been avidly covering the abuse of male prisoners. Unsatisfactory, that is, unless for some reason the abuse of women has a significance that the abuse of male prisoners does not.

The second hoax raises a different set of questions but it too involves the Boston Globe, which by the way, is owned by the New York Times. In January 2004, around the time when “Noor” smuggled her story out of Abu Ghraib, the Globe was again talking about a rape hoax. An article called the “The Rape of Iraq” written at the time of the invasion by sex expert and commentator Dr. Susan Block was deliberately or unintentionally misread as a literal account of mass rape by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi women. (6) Based on this, a Turkish Islamist journal claimed falsely in October that a wave of 4,000 rapes had taken place and in a second article in December charged that scores of Iraqis killed in November were shot while rioting over the kidnapping and rape of 30 young girls by American soldiers. The supposed 4,000 rapes seem also to have motivated suicide-bomber attacks in Turkey.

In her article for a left-wing website, Dr. Susan Block, a sex-therapist, described the invasion of Iraq as the “Rape of Iraq” in a graphically elaborated metaphor that was deliberately or accidentally misconstrued several months later in the Turkish journal Yeni Safak. The reactions from the Americans and the Turks were instructively different:

According to the US embassy, Dr Block’s professional activities disqualified her as a legitimate source of news:

The US Embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, has strongly denounced the reports, calling them “outrageous allegations . . . based on a US ‘source’ best known for her pornographic websites and erotic television program. We believe it is irresponsible for a serious newspaper to present such false claims from a clearly unreliable source.”

Here, pornography is so clearly differentiated from the world of “serious” news reporting that anything that appears on a porn site is on its face unreliable, a theory with interesting uses if one wanted to set in motion a campaign of disinformation to discredit “serious” information. For the Americans, the pornography automatically discredits the rape charge.

But for the journal, Yeni Safak, it’s precisely the vividity of the description of the “Rape of Iraq,” almost pornographic in effect although not in intent, that makes it credible. The fact that the author is also the owner of a pornographic website only confirms for them that the detention of Iraqi women, for months the subject of swirling rumors on the “Arab street,” amounts to rape. For the Turks, the pornography automatically seals the rape charge.

Dr. Block herself naturally enough condemns the misuse of her “rape” metaphor as completely unjustified, but her philosophy doctorate from Yale apparently hasn’t disabused her of the naïve assumption that authorial intent can be “fixed” by what the author has in mind at the moment of writing. It’s precisely the fluidity of authorial intent that is the reason for the Iraqi cultural perception that the photographing of female detainees while stripped or even partially undressed is not simply a violation of their privacy but tantamount to rape, and depending on the uses made of the photography, even worse than rape.

Without representation, there’s only sex or rape. It’s the visual, textual, or audio recording of a sexual act or rape that makes it pornography. By literally representing the accomplished act, pornography can powerfully change how it’s perceived not only by outsiders but by the participants. Even more importantly, it can change how the participants in the act are seen, again, not only by outsiders, but by themselves. For instance, an ordinary Iraqi woman caught undressed on camera can be represented as loose or even a prostitute both to her community and, most insidiously, to herself. The intent and will of the photographer becomes ineluctably printed on top of her own absence of intent or will in an act of force that is nothing short of a rape of her identity. Whereas a physical rape ends at the end of the act, however, this virtual rape can continue permanently for the life of the image which, of course, can far exceed several human lives.

Since tens of thousands of Iraqis have passed through the detention system during a year of occupation, we can assume that thousands of Iraqis have been privy to the photographing of male and female detainees. Even if the actual number of those photographed was lower - and at this point we have no way of knowing if that is so or not - even the knowledge that such photographs existed would have been enough of a threat for most Iraqi women to keep silent about their abuse. As I have suggested, there is testimony that the photographs were used to blackmail detainees into silence with the fear of public exposure or commercial use. Add to this the threat of reprisals in an honor culture and we may have another reason why women have not been forthcoming about these incidents.

If, the notion of “intent” can be so easily manipulated, so can the notion of “consent.” Although initially Dr. Suzy (as she is known in her multimedia empire) admitted to some dismay at the similarity between some of the abuses described at Abu Ghraib and the sexual practices cheerily promoted on her website, she ultimately insisted that there was a firewall between her representations of sexuality and the pornographic violence of Abu Ghraib — her clientele consented to participate; the Abu Ghraib victims did not.

This of course is a staple of some feminist defenses of pornography.

But is there in fact such a firewall?

Dr. Block herself is an engaging personality — Little Bo-Peep on leave from a French bordello according to no less than the Weekly Standard (who knew their reading habits?). (7) And she presents the practices on her site including sadomasochism, bondage and dominance, mother, father, and child fantasies, intruder and rape fantasies, consensual gang-bangs, vampirism, cannibalism, and, yes, genital torture — as part of a sexual “nature” that must be rescued from the unhealthy repression of societal constraint. They are quirky variants in the normal landscape of adult human sexuality, we’re told, which in the interests of unrepressed good health must be let out in the open.

But Dr. Block’s assumptions about nature are as naïve as her assumptions about authorial intent. For one thing, since a part of her site is devoted to her therapeutic practice, we have to assume that at least some part of her clientele engages in these practices not from any kind of choice at all but from compulsion. For another, sexual practices and responses — whether mainstream or marginal — are themselves a part and a product of elaborate social constructions that develop out of the structure of society and can exist only in dialogue with it.

The textual, visual, and audio representations of sexual practices remove them even further from the “natural” world of peaceful polymorphous perversity she wants us to believe is the alternative to the violent struggle for power and show that what we are talking about is not really Rousseauian nature at all. Instead we have a set of socially constructed practices, driven by desire (not always to be equated with choice) and even compulsion, that circulates simultaneously through networks of commercial exchange and representation (print, internet, film, T.V., video/CD/DVD) in which they are replicated and transformed. This guarantees that at any given moment after an image has been inserted into circulation, the link between the representation and the intent or consent involved originally will be tenuous or even contradicted. It also guarantees that at no point is the manufacture and dissemination of pornography free of the market forces behind any other commercial enterprise - demand and supply,

Including the smaller homosexual and child porn markets, the overwhelming proportion of demand for pornography is male. Excluding those markets, the overwhelming proportion of the supply of pornographic performers is female. But contrary to some anti-porn feminist rhetoric, the porn business is not so much an exploitation of men by women as it is an exploitation of the natures of both men and women by commerce. The international skin trade feeds both on sexual and economic needs that it also molds, much as the fast-food industry alters and shapes taste-buds in ways that are not necessarily either healthy or ecologically sound. It’s a global business worth a staggering $57 billion dollars, the U.S. share being about $12 billion, and it’s been made even more lucrative by the advent of the internet. A digital camera and a click of the mouse and mere consumers of pornography are now producers and suppliers. In this kind of a market, big players can afford to play safe and say no to violence, minors, or “extreme” practices, but even they’ve come a long way. “Ma Bell” is the prime distributor of pornography through pay-per-view channels on its cable services, and one in five of its broadband cable customers pay to see “real, live all-American sex — not simulated by actors.” (8) For corporate America, at least, if not for the U.S. military or for some feminists, there seems to be no firewall between the real and the simulated.

In the face of such big-time competition, little guys who want a foothold in porn have every incentive to push the envelope if they want to sell, and violence and degradation sell. Where do they find violence and degradation ready-made? In war zones. No surprise then that more and more American and European porn producers are relocating to Eastern Europe where women driven to desperation by economies shattered by the U.S./NATO intervention and neo-liberal policies are willing to do a great deal more for much less. Budapest, where the bogus Globe rape photos apparently originated, is the new porn capital of Europe and the main transit and destination for the trafficking of women from the Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, and Yugoslavia. Sex Farm, a site in Denmark, has images with titles like “needle torture,” “pregnant bondage” and “drunk from the toilet” that recall details in the accounts by Iraqi detainees, and the women in them display visible wounds and bleeding. Rape and torture are not new but their pornographic representation has until now been limited, hard to come by, and socially censored. But now such images make up an ever increasing proportion of marketed pornography, are far more easily accessed, reach many more people than was ever remotely possible, and are available in interactive formats whose graphic effect on the neural network of the viewer is likely to be significantly more powerful and long-lasting than older representations. (9)

While we can’t definitively prove that viewing violent pornography incites real acts of rape or torture (although many suspect it does), we can prove that real acts of rape and torture do indeed increase the supply of violent pornography. And real acts of rape, abduction, and torture without doubt follow in the wake of war and economic devastation. Studies have repeatedly shown that sex crimes surge in wartime and around military bases to which prostitutes are trafficked. (10) Other studies have shown that neo-liberal policies of “structural adjustments” that accompany globalization create economic conditions where prostitution, rape, and sex trafficking flourishes. (11)

These studies make it obvious why talking about consent and choice in the sex trade or in porn is misleading. If it’s morally problematic to create images of real rape and torture from wartime atrocities either to blackmail or coerce or for some one’s pleasurable viewing, it’s surely also at least somewhat problematic to create images of simulated rape and torture from the coerced or so-called “consensual” labor of impoverished and desperate women, or for that matter children or men. Even in peaceful or prosperous societies, the fact that most performers in the porn trade come from physically or sexually abusive backgrounds or are substance abusers should raise a moral question about the supply side of the business, even if we have nothing to say about the demand.

But in fact we don’t raise questions about either. And that’s yet another reason for our unease about the torture at Abu Ghraib. Our dismay is a product of our instinctive, if unacknowledged, recognition not that the degradation and torture were “only porn,” but that at least some of what is passed off as “only porn” or even an empowerment of women is really a form of degradation and torture, whether the participants consented to it or not and whether they, or we, find it enjoyable or not. The pervasive presence of violent and even some non-violent pornography that intends to degrade has so numbed us to the way in which it dehumanizes that only encountering their images unexpectedly on the front pages of a newspaper shocks us into awareness.

The thin or at times non-existent line between genuine and simulated degradation and violence that commercial smut encourages us to ignore not only makes the sexualized torture of Abu Ghraib more possible, it also makes it more permissible. Having encountered these images where they lawfully constitute “mere” humiliation as entertainment, we are more inclined to pass them off in the way Rush Limbaugh and some others did as a “brilliant” psychological tactic. The implication of this, that the psychological must inherently be non-torturous, is a claim that follows from our muddled notion of representation, as I’ve earlier argued.

This prejudice against mental forms of torture (and Abu Ghraib of course clearly included plenty of physical forms of torture) means that crimes in which the psychological component is high tend to be regarded as less serious, even when physical violence and injuries are involved. This is even more true during war-time. Iraqi hospitals and police as well as the U.S. military police and occupation authorities have for a year displayed their indifference to the crisis of rape. (12) Reporters, rather than questioning this, appear to have gone along with the attitude that when people are dying in the thousands, sex crimes are of less importance. That certainly could factor into the silence about such crimes.

But if so, why did the rape of Iraqi men provoke more of an outcry than the bombing, shootings, and snipings that have occurred daily since the end of the war? Why have many Iraqis themselves felt that they would rather have been killed than put through the sexualized torment of Abu Ghraib? On our side, why did the possible rape (I say possible because there are contradictory statements and evidence about this) of Jessica Lynch create more rage than the death and wounding of hundreds of American soldiers? Any account of the media silence about the crimes against Iraqi women must take into account such ambiguities and contradictions.

(To Be Continued)

Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Baltimore currently working on a book about the press. She has taught music at the Peabody Preparatory, and English and Politics at the University of Maryland and Towson University. Copyright (c) 2004 by Lila Rajiva.


(1) On May 1, the Daily Mirror carried pictures showing a hooded man being urinated on and assaulted with a rifle butt. The Mirror claimed it was given the photos by two anonymous soldiers. The following day, The Sunday Telegraph newspaper said six soldiers from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment were going to be arrested in connection with the apparent abuse. The Mirror, one of only two papers that opposed the war, had good reason to trust the photos given the testimony of a number of soldiers, reports of abuse in the Independent, as well as earlier reports by Amnesty International and the International Red Cross. The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment was also facing a charge of having murdered an Iraqi detainee. However, within a few days, there were charges that the pictures were hoaxed and a 25-member government investigation began. Rushing to judgment to preempt the charges against the QLR, the government found the pictures a hoax. Pressure from Mirror’s owners, Trinity Mirror, and several prominent US corporations with shares in Trinity who had opposed the Mirror’s antiwar stance long before the photos were published led to the sacking of Piers Morgan, the Mirror’s editor, on May 14. The paper published an apology although it stood by its editorial decisions. The government never produced documentation to support its findings.

(2) “Arab anger at Iraq torture photos,” Paul Wood, BBC, May 4, 2004.

(3) “The Web as al-Qaida’s safety net,” Scott Shane, Baltimore Sun, April 2, 2003.

(4) A well-known Iraqi-born Egyptian novelist, Buthaina Al-Nasiri, who refused to publish the photos believing them to be inauthentic and inflammatory nevertheless affirms that they represent what really did take place at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere: “Fake Rape Photos Infuriate Arab World,” Sherrie Gossett, May 9, 2004. 

(5) “New DynCorps Contract Draws Scrutiny,” Kelly O’Meara, Insight 2003.

(6) “Rumors of rape fan anti-American flames,” Charles Radin, January 1, 2004, Boston Globe.

(7) Press Quotes, Dr. Susan Block’s Journal.

(8) “Wall Street Meets Pornography,” Timothy Egan, October 23, 2000. See also, “Dirty Business: Porn Profits Attract Blue-Chip Corporations,” ABC News, March 25, 2002. General Motors’ adult video trade is a bigger business than Hustler’s Larry Flynt, and EchoStar, backed largely by Rupert Murdoch, makes more money than the whole Playboy business.

(9) “The Use of New Communication and Information Technologies for the Sexual Exploitation of Women and Children,” Donna Hughes, Rhode Island University Professor and an expert in the study of global trafficking of women Hastings Women’s Law Journal, 2002: www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes/demand.htm

(10) Studies by Moon, 1997 and Sturdevant and Stoltzfus, 1992, cited in Hughes, 2002.

(11) Studies by Daguno, 1998 and Bishop and Robinson, 1998. Cited in Hughes, 2002.

(12) “Iraqi women shut out by fear,” Radio Netherlands, July 2003.

Other Articles by Lila Rajiva

* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part II: Theater That Educates, News That Propagandizes
* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part I: Rapes and Rumors of Rape
* Nicholas Kristof’s Fox Pas(s)
* Putting Conservatives on the Couch: Transactional Analysis and the Torture Apologists
* The New Post-Colonial Racism
* Eyeless in Iraq: The L.A. Times and the Fog of War


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