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  • Sexual Torture: US Policy and Culture

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Today, sexual abuse is not only used in US prisons abroad, but also in its domestic gulags. In many ways, sexualized torture has even become commonplace in pop-culture.

Sexual violence is firmly imbedded in US society; its institutions and cultural mechanisms reinforce the appalling concept that sexual torture is acceptable, exciting, even predictable in certain situations. Sexual violence, mixed with torture, is becoming increasingly popularized and normalized in American culture. Without doubt, the most powerful and violent empire in the history of the world is becoming even more depraved.

Today, sexual abuse is not only used in US prisons abroad, but also in its domestic gulags. In many ways, sexualized torture has even become commonplace in pop-culture, with novels and films such as 50 Shades of Grey, American Psycho and Hurt Locker glamorizing and fetishizing abusive practices. Similarly, rape is now represented in vast portions of modern pornography, with some films depicting the acts within the context geopolitical current events.

So-called civilized nations and peoples have used sexual ferocity as a means to torment and psychologically discipline occupied peoples throughout the world. The Spanish raped and killed hundreds of thousands of human beings, as did Alexander the Great. The Romans routinely employed erotic violence as a means to penalize and persecute plebeians. Indeed, empires must control their subjects, both at home and abroad.

Obscene and sadistic forms of torture are used throughout America's many militaristic institutions. For instance, back in June 2014, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project and several other organizations filed a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of 116 children who reported being sexually abused and tortured by US Customs and Border Patrol agents.

Border Patrol agents routinely strip-searched the kids, forced them to defecate in front of each other and commonly cursed at the children, using lewd and racial slurs. Some of the children were required to drink "toilet tank water" while others were deprived of food, leaving many of the kids malnourished and sick. Consequently, Latin American immigrants are receiving a first-hand education in US democracy and freedom.

In similar fashion, sexually abusing immigrants has become marketable in modern pornography. The porn company, MindGeek, introduced a new series called "Border Patrol Sex," where mock-Border Patrol agents erotically torture actors who play immigrant women. Of course the women are advertised as "late-teens," "amateurs" and "sexy Latinas." Anna Merlan from Jezebel cites the introduction from the "Border Patrol Sex" websiteWatch these guys hunting the illegal female immigrants and giving them a lesson on why the law should be obeyed. Cruising in their SUV, agents catch these college girls in the field and f*** them really hard. Getting f***ed by a border patrol agent is one thing, but these girls don't know that this doesn't really mean they get to pass the border afterwards.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that this sort of madness is becoming popularized in modern pornography. In fact, much of what is now considered normal in the world of porn would terrify the reasonable observer: "face-fucking," simulated rape, choking, gagging and physical violence now permeate American sexual culture. Tens of millions of young boys casually consume the most insidious forms of sexual violence. Now we can add xenophobic-porno to the list.

 When thinking about domestic torture, Chicago Police Sergeant Jon Burge immediately comes to mind. Burge was recently released from jail after serving less than four years in federal prison for "overseeing" a "torture ring" in the Chicago Police Department. From the early 1970s through the 1990s, over 120 black men, largely from Chicago's South Side, were sexually tortured by Burge and fellow officers in the CPD.

Burge's victims report being "suffocated" and having their "genitals shocked with cattle prods." Some were tied up for days, beaten, sexually abused and psychologically tormented. Racial slurs were commonly used to degrade Burge's victims. Coincidentally, Burge was educated in the killing fields of Korea and Vietnam, where US tax dollars were used to sharpen his racist, militaristic and torturous skills. The tactics and strategies used by police forces at home are often learned abroad.

In Vietnam, rape was commonly used as a weapon of war. In his brilliant and comprehensive work Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, Nick Turse recalls America's brutal legacy of sexual violence in Southeast Asia. US troops raped thousands of children; some were killed, their corpses mutilated. Vietnamese women were commonly subjected to gang-rapes, sexual torture and murder. On some occasions, US troops would sexually attack Vietnamese women while forcing their children to watch, eventually killing both.

Much of this was official policy. For example, the 1st Calvary, 4th Infantry and 1st Infantry Divisions set up official brothels within the perimeters of their bases. According to Turse, by the end of the war "as many as 500,000 women in Vietnam had turned to prostitution," as the nation's economy was completely destroyed by the US occupation. Some of these women were as young as six years old. They were frequently raped with entrenching shovels, rifles and bayonets, leaving many women dead.

Alfred McCoy, in his book A Question of Torture, suggests that the Philippines "provides the most poignant lesson about the consequences of CIA psychological torture" in the post-Vietnam era. From 1972 to 1986, US-backed dictator President Ferdinand Marcos' regime administered torture techniques crafted in Vietnam, engendering the most vicious forms of psychological and physical anguish. Unsurprisingly, Marcos' soldiers regularly shocked their prisoners' nipples, testicles and anuses.

 In Iran, McCoy reminds us of the CIA's role in training, supporting and funding the shah's secret police: the Savak. Throughout the 1960s and 70s dissidents, students, labor organizers, revolutionaries and broad swaths of Iran's citizenry were tortured, raped and imprisoned. When asked by Le Monde about his government's torture techniques, the shah responded, "Why should we not employ the same methods as you Europeans?." After all, they learned the tactics from the West.

Accordingly, the French Armed Forces employed brutal forms of torture during their colonial adventures in Algeria. These systems of persecution were common practice during the colonization of Algeria, becoming official policy by 1830. In 1841, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that "war in Africa is a science." This "science" was applied by the French during their counterinsurgency terror campaign in Algeria during the 1950s. Similarly, the British refined their torture practices in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.

Today, the US provides the latest example in a long-line of imperial nations that have implemented the most brutal and insane forms of punishment. Remember, the goal is to punish, not extract "valuable information." Elite managers of empire understand this concept quite well. Therefore the rest of us should avoid conversations surrounding the effectiveness of such techniques. There's only one purpose for torture tactics: the destruction of peoples' lives. Indeed, that's what they're meant to do.

Recent reports detailing techniques such as "anal-feeding," "anal-rehydration," strip searches, sensory deprivation, isolation and various forms of psychological and physical trauma, only scratches the surface of US violence and depravity abroad. It's virtually impossible to quantify the deaths of over 1,000,000 Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Syrians. Likewise, how can we properly account for the individual trauma endured by those on the receiving end of US democracy? Investigations help, yet the reports we're now reading provide a minimal understanding of the true scope of the violence inflicted overseas.

Morris Berman, in his book Dark Ages America, reflects on the US' legacy of torture in the Arab and Muslim world, “It is hard to refute the charge that the whole thing was systemic, and designed in particular for a Muslim population. After all, how are a bunch of kids from rural West Virginia or wherever going to know what is particularly humiliating to Arabs, about whom they know literally nothing? Is it really likely they would do all this on their own initiative?”

Berman poses an interesting question: To what degree can these acts be attributed to systemic programming as opposed to subjective acts of violence? In other words, how much of this savagery is imposed institutionally and hierarchically? And how much is enacted on an individual basis? One cannot argue that prison guards in California in 1980 had any relationship to prison guards in Abu Ghraib. Yet why did the guards on both occasions force prisoners to strip naked and model women's clothes?

Why are the same torture techniques used against Arabs and Muslims enacted throughout the US penal system? Further, why have prison guards at home found the same tactics so enticing to use? Is there a much deeper psychological dynamic at play? To me, these are interesting and important questions to raise. Such questions force us to not only investigate systems of power, but also ourselves. How easy is it to torture? What drives someone who isn't coerced from "higher-ups" to engage in such sadistic behavior?

The Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 provides an example of how susceptible people are to engaging in psychological abuse and torment. While the students in the experiment were not allowed to physically punish their mock-inmates, they repeatedly utilized non-physical forms of psychological abuse, including strip-searches, isolation, sensory deprivation and verbal abuse.

Similarly, many of the prison guards in Abu Ghraib behaved in the same manner. In fact, numerous images show female guards posing next to Iraqi prisoners, some smiling, others making gestures and giving a "thumbs-up" hand-sign. In addition, many of the reports indicated that the female prison guards in Abu Ghraib took it upon themselves to expose their breasts and genitals to male prisoners while forcing inmates to perform mock-sexual acts on each other.

The US's legacy of torture domestically and overseas has become fully normalized in US institutional structures, ideologies and policies. From pornography to mass-media depictions, sadism is an inherent part of US culture and military techniques. Yet all of these practices find their roots in Western Culture, as indigenous peoples around the world have been subjected to absurd levels of psychological and physical persecution dating back to the original conquests of indigenous lands. Much of this history can be attributed to systemic phenomena, but not all of it. Sometimes, individuals take it upon themselves to perform psychotic acts.

In short, sexualized violence and torture have been an inherent part of Western Culture for over 1,000 years, from the first Western empires to the colonial period and beyond, civilized peoples have repeatedly employed ruthless methods of torture. Today, such tactics are becoming increasingly normalized in US discourse and political practices. Counterinsurgency tactics employed abroad return in the domestic policing and correctional arenas. Additionally, modern pornography replicates these militarized and violent forms of sex, culturally propagandizing and fetishizing torture.

Many times, the worst aspects of torture are found in soldiers or guards who carry-out orders from above. But not always. Sometimes, they are found in the individuals themselves, many of whom act independently from hierarchical managers, yet still manage to replicate the system's brutality.

Vincent would like to thank Allison Warkentien for her valuable contributions to this essay. Vincent Emanuele is a writer, radio journalist and activist. He lives in Michigan City, Indiana and can be reached at vince.emanuele@ivaw.org

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