Ukraine. War. Rape. – or: The continuation of war by other means

Ukraine. War. Rape. – or: The continuation of war by other means

Following the thesis that war is the continuation of politics by other means, one could say that war rape is the continuation of war by other means. Currently, this can  be observed in the behavior of Russian soldiers towards the Ukrainian civilian population.



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When one thinks of war, one probably first thinks of tanks, trenches, bombs. One thinks of machine guns and air raids. But war can be waged not only with these means. War can also be waged by sexually humiliating people, humiliating them and thus destroying their community. War can be waged by raping the civilian population.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reports of sexual violence are mounting,1 especially of rapes of the Ukrainian civilian population by members of the Russian military. The victims are mostly women and children.2

Male victims and perpetrators

Even though rapes are disproportionately committed by men against women,3  this does not mean that men do not also become victims of war rape and women do not become perpetrators. There are different forms of rape, so that people of all genders can potentially become perpetrators, but also victims.

According to the International Criminal Court’s definition, the existence of wartime rape is tied to four conditions:

  1. Penetration of another person by a body part or object.
  2. Begehung der Penetration durch Gewalt, Drohung oder Zwang, verursacht etwa durch die Angst vor Gewalt, Nötigung, Machtmissbrauch oder psychologische Unterdrückung oder durch Ausnutzung einer Zwangssituation oder Begehung gegenüber einer Person, die nicht dazu imstande ist, Konsens zu verleihen.
  3. Committing as part of a widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population.
  4. Knowledge of the perpetrator(s) about the embedding in such an attack.4

There must therefore be a functional connection between the individual act and the attack on the civilian population. The act must not be committed merely „on occasion.“ The acts are normatively recorded as war crimes and crimes against humanity and can be prosecuted as such by the International Criminal Court.

War rapes are by no means a new phenomenon. Rather, they have been taking place ever since wars have been waged5 and often seem inextricably linked with these.6 Nevertheless, until the 1990s, the acts were largely ignored and regarded as an unattractive but unavoidable side effect of warlike conflicts.7 It was not until the systematic mass rapes during the Yugoslav wars that international (and scientific) attention was drawn to the issue. According to the UN Security Council, sexual violence is an obstacle to the restoration of international security and world peace.8 But still the acts are socially covered with a big taboo and the victims are stigmatized.9 This, in combination with the general difficulties of research in war and crisis zones, means that to date there are hardly any reliable figures on wartime rape and that research must mostly limit itself to qualitative analyses, thus necessarily reaching its limits.

War rape represents a continuum of warlike conflicts, but is not – as is still partly claimed today – inextricably linked to war, but there are very well wars in which rape is not committed. This fact must be understood and used as a key to possible prevention of future acts.

What is not inevitable, can be ended.10

Elisabeth Jean Wood


Until well into the 20th century, wartime rape was typically explained in terms of a sexual drive that the perpetrator could not control.11 he (male) body is to be understood like a steam boiler in which sexual pressure builds up that has to be discharged at some point. However, sexual desires, especially the substitute satisfaction due to the lack of available consensual sexual partners, seem to play only a clearly subordinate role in reality compared to other factors. This can be seen, for example, in the use of forced prostitutes as so-called comfort women by the Japanese military, which did not prevent the soldiers in any significant way from committing mass war rapes, as in the Nanking massacre.13 The steam boiler model must be rejected as obsolete.14

Massacre of Nanking

The so-called Nanking Massacre refers to a war crime committed by the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War, in which the Chinese city of Nanking was occupied by Japanese troops in December 1937 and at least 200,000 people were killed and about 20,000 people raped within six weeks.12

Instead, a special form of dehumanization, i.e. dehumanization of the victim, plays a special role in wartime rape: the degradation of the feminine by patriarchy. The term patriarchy refers to the ideology that ascribes a superior role to heterosexual men over women, non-heterosexual men, and people of other genders.15

Only the heterosexual male is considered the norm, everything else a subordinate deviation. The passive side of sexual contact is generally connoted as feminine. Raping someone thus „feminizes“ the person and thus subordinates them, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator and the victim. At the same time, it gives the perpetrator a sense of masculinity, whereby masculinity is closely associated with power and strength in the context of warfare and is thus considered desirable. This also sheds light on why many wartime rapes are also committed against men, who can be equally humiliated by wartime rape.

In addition, the blurring of the line between civilians and combatants, the expectations of the actor’s small military group, and the lack of consistent prosecution and sanctioning of wartime rape by military structures to this day also play a crucial role in facilitating the commission of wartime rape.

War rape as a continuation of war by other means?

Borrowing from the thesis that war is the continuation of politics by other means, one could say that war rape is the continuation of war by other means. Sexual violence can be a means of achieving humiliation, fear, and displacement far beyond the immediate victim. This can currently be observed in the behavior of the Russian military towards Ukrainian civilians.

Especially at the beginning of the war of aggression, Ukraine and Russia were often portrayed as David against Goliath. 16 If one follows the Ukrainian narrative, what defines the Ukrainian fighters is their irrepressible will to defend their homeland, but also the European values understood as the future in freedom and democracy.17

What makes them special is their mentality. They see themselves as protectors.

But it is precisely this protective spirit that is perfidiously attacked by war rapes. They show that the community is not in a position to protect women and children, who disproportionately often do not take part in the fighting and are often completely defenseless.18 Thus, war rape goes far beyond the immediate victim in its consequences. Men are killed and women raped, thereby conveying complete weakness and inferiority to the enemy. The acts can lead to displacement and collective trauma of entire communities.19 This is of particular importance in war situations where victory cannot be achieved (alone) on the battlefield due to poor planning or lack of military success – and the Russian invasion must be regarded as such from the current perspective.20

That wartime rape can be used as a weapon of war for deliberate humiliation, domination and displacement has been recognized by the United Nations since 2008.21 Not every act of wartime rape automatically involves the use of weapons. Rather, the acts are often on a spectrum between mere deviance (i.e. deviant behavior) and systematic use. However, it can be assumed on the basis of the above arguments that the war rapes committed by the Russian army against the Ukrainian population are in principle a use of weapons.

Thus, the perpetration of wartime rape by Russian soldiers against the Ukrainian population represents the continuation of the war by other means and as such must be prosecuted and punished internationally. Against this background, the initiation of investigations by the International Criminal Court is to be welcomed as a first step towards prosecution and sanctioning of the acts under international criminal law.

Solidarity in the context of war?

Solidarity in this context must be thought of as solidarity with all those who are dehumanized by patriarchy. Once the feminine is no longer subordinate to the masculine, no one can be degraded by „feminization.“

Solidarity must also mean taking seriously the victims of often „invisible“ acts of violence such as rape in war, but also in peacetime, giving them a voice as well as material and immaterial help, and fighting for justice.


Anouk Noelle Nicklas


  1. Zum Streit um die Begriffe „sexuelle Gewalt“ und „sexualisierte Gewalt“ vgl.; abgerufen am 22.08.2022
  2. Stemple, Male Rape and Human Rights, Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 60, S. 605 (606) m.w.N.; De Brouwer, Cornell International Law Journal 2015, 639 (648)
  3. Stemple, Male Rape and Human Rights, Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 60, S. 605 (606, 611) m.w.N.; Gaggioli, Sexual violence in armed conflicts: A violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 96, Nr. 894, 503 (504); De Brouwer, Cornell International Law Journal 2015, 639 (648); Cohen et al., Wartime sexual violence, United States Institute of Peace – Special Report 323, 2013, S. 4f.
  4. IStGH, Elements of Crimes, Art. 7 (1) (g)-1.
  5. Stiglmayer, Massenvergewaltigung – Krieg gegen die Frauen, 1993, S. 17.
  6. Ward, Wartime Sexual Violence at the International Level: A Legal Perspective, 2018, S. 1.
  7. Salzman, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 20, 348 (373).
  8. Resolution 1820 des UN-Sicherheitsrats, 19 Juni 2008, S/RES/1820 (2008)
  9. Salzman, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 20, 348 (370); Skjelsbaek, Sexual Violence and War: Mapping Out a Complex Relationship, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 7, Nr. 2, 211 ( 212); Bernard, Sexual violence in armed conflict: from breaking the silence to breaking the cycle, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 94 Nr. 894, 427 (429).
  10. Wood, Conflict-related sexual violence and the policy implications of recent research, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 96, Nr. 894, S. 457 (478).
  11. Seifert, in: Stiglmayer, Massenvergewaltigung – Krieg gegen die Frauen, 1993, 85 (86).
  12. IMTFE, Judgement, November 1948, englische Version, Vol. II, Kap. VIII, S. 1011, 1012, 1015
  13. Vgl. Ahn, Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’ and Historical Memory: The Neo-nationalist Counter-attack, in: Saaler/Schwentker, The power of memory in modern japan, S. 44 m.w.N.;
  14. Weis, Die Vergewaltigung und ihre Opfer, 1982, S. 62; Seifert, in: Stiglmayer, Massenvergewaltigung – Krieg gegen die Frauen, 1993, 85 (86).
  15. Vgl.; abgerufen am 15. Juni 2022.
  16.; abgerufen am 22.08.2022
  17. Vgl. Ansprache des ukrainischen Präsidenten Volodymyr Zelensky vor dem Europäischen Parlament vom 01.03.2022;; abgerufen am 22.08.2022
  18. Vgl.; abgerufen am 15. Juni 2022.
  19. Elbert et al, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Kivu Provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo: Insights from Former Combatants, S. 7 m.w.N; Guterres, Conflict-related sexual violence: Report of the United Nations Secretary General, S/2019/280, S. 6.
  20. Vgl.; abgerufen am 15. Juni 2022.
  21. Resolution 1820 des UN-Sicherheitsrats, 19 Juni 2008, S/RES/1820 (2008)

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