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A Feminist Approach to Sexual Violence Against Men: The case of the DRC

Feminist Perspectives - ’Disciplined and Resistant Bodies’
Marina Ferrero Baselga (She/Her)

BA International Relations graduate, King's College London

10 August 2023

The following article includes a discussion of sexual violence, using direct language to describe acts committed and their emotional consequences.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one in four men has experienced sexual violence. Yet, despite the staggering statistic, few have asked where this violence comes from.

Women are disproportionately affected by sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV); however, this does not make SGBV exclusive to women. Most of its forms, including rape, genital mutilation, enforced nudity, and involuntary sterilization, are perpetrated against men, too. All of these, despite the common misconception that men are predisposed to enjoy sex under any circumstance, are used to assert the perpetrator’s masculinity and victimize the survivor.

One male survivor of sexual assault explained in his testimony that the soldiers targeting him did not enjoy the act; they wanted revenge for a previous attack by his people. Sex, in this account, is not related to pleasure. It is employed as a tool for expressing power and dominance, concepts closely tied to masculinity. The importance of masculinity in this sexual act indicates a gendered nature.

This form of gender-based violence prevalent in the DRC, a weakening state, long-suffering from internal conflict and violence against civilians. Although its civil war officially ended in 2003, figures for population displacement and fatalities have scarcely changed. The country’s grave humanitarian crisis continues as the army and local militias terrorize communities. It was also ranked 150 out of 162 on the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (which measures levels of gender inequality in health, empowerment, and labor), thus indicating a strong adherence to patriarchal values.

Men are, therefore, considered the social, economic, and political leaders of the nation, both within and outside of the household. The power imbalance between the genders is evident in its domestic violence statistics; 74.8% of adult women agree that household violence is acceptable. Behind this statistic lies a central social belief: Men are supposedly protectors, providers, and leaders—a belief that upholds patriarchal systems and social inequalities, and underpins the institutional and domestic violence that women face. These systems of patriarchy, moreover, subjugate men to their expectations and roles, and tie sexual violence against men to masculinity.

One Congolese woman explained: 

It is common for men and boys to be raped... They rape all of us, even the men.– testimony from a Congolese woman

Resembling violence against women, SGBV against men is most often perpetrated by men. Consequently, it often occurs outside the household, they are exposed to other men. Often, these perpetrators were acquaintances (16%), neighbors (9%), or family members (12%), studies show. More frequently, they were bandits or armed combatants, either on the road or during home invasions (41%).

What underlying reasons are there for this violence? Incidents of sexual assault can be seen as isolated, particularly when they occur against men. Feminist scholars dispute this view; sexual violence, they argue, has gendered causes. They have posed a number of theories explaining the nature of these causes, one crucial example being Gender Inequality Theory. This theory states that sexual violence is a result of pre-existing gender dynamics and strict gender roles, magnified by war and conflict. Victims’ testimonies relate violence to one (or both) of the following dynamics: dominance and emasculation. These are overlapping and often coexistent and, though they may or may not be actively present in the perpetrator’s mind, are observable in all cases.

The first underlying dynamic in SGBV against men, dominance, is a desire by the perpetrator to exert power. Masculinity is rooted in the ability to exert power over other people and protect oneself from them. Both genders’ experiences of sexual violence are marked by unequal power relations and domination. Such acts are considered “gendered” in that they exploit the humiliation that follows survivors’ “failure” to live up to gender role. In women, this role is closely tied to chastity. Removing their perceived purity (and potentially forcing pregnancies) inflicts a deep social and personal wound beyond the trauma of the assault. In men, their role as strong, invulnerable leaders is targeted. Not only does the violence disempower the individual man, but it also informs his community that he is unable to protect himself and, by extension, his people and family. This, in turn, destabilizes his community by propagating a sense of fear and vulnerability; domination is, in this regard, an underlying feature of gendered violence against men.

Men who have given testimonies of their experiences express this theme of domination. One spokesperson of a local NGO from Eastern DRC explained that survivors:


leave their house and go into the bushes. They will have to stay there with another group as they will not have any friends in the community. They will be poor, isolated, and humiliated.– A spokesperson of a local NGO from Eastern DRC

Thus, SGBV against men is a way to take away their power in an intimate way. This humiliation is rooted in concepts of gender, wherein an inability to protect oneself from such an intimate attack indicates a loss of manhood. Masculinity, particularly hegemonic masculinity (defined as the ideal form of masculinity to which men can aspire, grounded in aggression and dominance), is consequently assaulted.

The second (related) dynamic present is emasculation, typically in the form of feminization or homosexualization. Masculinity and victimhood are widely viewed as incompatible. Thus, when sexual violence hurts men, in their eyes and those of the community, their masculine attributes have been taken away from them. One survivor reflected this, noting that his attackers:

they wanted us to feel as though we were women...this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman.– Testimony from a male survivor of sexual violence

Another survivor states that his rapists considered him their woman, forcing him to wash their clothes and take care of their children. His rape, he explained, had transformed him from a man into the wife of those soldiers.

It is worth noting, in reviewing these accounts, the reality of gender hierarchy. Perpetrators of sexual violence, in expressing aggressive hegemonic masculinity, emerge clearly at the top, with male survivors of SGBV somewhere below. While this article has focused mostly on this relationship between male attacker and male victim, the above quote also highlights another unequal relationship: the one between men and women, wherein womanhood is perceived as “the worst insult.” Their position remains at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Often, sexual violence is not only a gendered issue; it is also a result of homophobia. Negative connotations of homosexuality, starkly present in the DRC, make the rape of men by men uniquely damaging. Male victims are considered “homosexualized,” in part because of their sexual contact with men, but also because understandings of sexuality do not allow weakness in heterosexual men. Homosexuality is seen as the explanation for this “weakness.” Once again, this is evident in survivors’ accounts. When asked why he did not seek help after his rape, one man answered that men were not meant to sleep with men; for the good of his family, he and his wife stated, the attack must be kept secret.

In short, pre-existing, harsh gender roles are exploited and expressed through sexual violence, against both women and men. In men’s case, SGBV is used to dis-empower them, destroy their communities’ sense of safety, and deprive them of their masculinity through dominance and emasculation. Understanding these dynamics is vital if we are to end cycles of violence, as they equip us to tackle the roots of the problem.

About the author

Marina (She/Her) is a recent graduate of King’s College London.

Marina completed a BA in International Relations in 2023 and specialised in gendering conflict and development, with a particular interest in the Middle East and Africa. Marina is passionate about women’s sexual health and rights.

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