The Sexual Politics of War

Before we look at the gender dimensions behind the ghastly situation in Ukraine, there are some other news stories that demand notice, even if only in passing. Rising gas prices and the burden to the environment, for one. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for another, now passed into law. It bans teaching that same-sex lovers are human beings to children who are not “age appropriate”—not that such teaching is done in Florida schools anyway. COVID deaths worldwide reached 6 million. The Amazon rainforest hurtled toward irreversible change. And a happy after-the-fact International Women’s Day to you.

Am I not your cheerful blogger?

But oh, how I do like to at least try to look on the bright side of things. And three news items come to the fore immediately, although the third has taken more than a century to crawl there. First item: a jury found Guy Reffitt guilty of obstruction of official proceedings among other charges in the first trial of a January 6th Capitol riot defendant. Prosecutors argued that Reffitt, an oil-rig manager and a recruiter for the extremist Texas Three Percenters Militia, “lit the match” that led members of the Trump mob to stampede Congress. The guilty verdict followed a weeklong trial that included testimony from police officers, a Secret Service agent, one of Reffitt’s buddies in the Texas Three Percenters Militia, and even Reffitt’s own son. The jury also convicted him of wearing an illegal pistol on his hip during the attack and of later on threatening his teenage son and daughter to keep them from turning him into authorities. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on the obstruction count alone. That son, Jackson Reffitt, testified that his father had told him “If you turn me in you’re a traitor. And traitors get shot.” (You know, feminists really nailed it: trace violence back far enough and it always, inevitably starts with patriarchy in the family.) Item number 2: Right on the heels of that conviction came the conspiracy charge in the January 6th attack for long-time Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, indicted along with Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes.

Third and last, but way overdue, Congress finally gave its approval to make lynching a federal hate crime. Painfully hard as it is believe that over a century has passed with failed attempts to explicitly criminalize this hideous ritual of white supremacy, it’s now law at last. The historic bill carries the name of Emmett Till, the 14 year old African American boy tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955, and under the measure, the crime is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Representative George Henry White of North Carolina first introduced legislation to make lynching a hate crime in 1900; he was the only Black lawmaker in Congress at the time. The bill never even made it to the house floor for a vote, and in the years since more than 200 similar bills have been filed and have failed. The fine author and activist Pauli Murray, in her long, moving correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, passionately pleaded for the bill’s passage, but when Eleanor finally came on board, she could not convince FDR. It took until 2022—for shame—for the U.S. Congress to say, “No, we actually don’t approve of lynching.”

But now, back to Russia’s—or rather Putin’s—war in Ukraine, where Czar Vladimir is actually thinking about deploying chemical weapons (which his pal Assad did use in Syria and which Putin has ordered in individual assassinations); this despite that being a somewhat suicidal consideration. Meanwhile, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca Cola and (partially) Pepsi Cola suspended doing business in Russia because of mounting public pressure. Let’s hear it for mounting public pressure! Interestingly, the withdrawal of these food and drink giants might just carry more clout than other sanctions, no matter how mighty the oil corporations are, because McDonald’s, Starbucks, etc. have a direct, immediate impact on the Russian public. According to reports, that public has so far been left largely in the dark that there even is a war in Ukraine, since all independent media has been shut down; or, if they know about the war at all (from state-controlled media), they’re being told that Russia is winning, Ukrainians welcomed Russia with open arms, and the world approves. But when you can’t get your Coke or your burger, you start asking questions–and possibly joining those now 14,000 principled Russian citizens who have been demonstrating against the war in Russian cities, even at the risk of a recently imposed 10-year prison sentence.

Any societal crisis operates as an excuse for turning the clock back on progress, as folks scramble for their rabbit holes seeking a safety that does not exist. We saw it during COVID: with schools closed and child-care scarce–and no, by and large, men have not stepped up to their end of the bargain–millions of women have been forced to leave the labor force, which in itself has had a ripple effect on the economy. We can fill in the blanks for all the other setbacks: A dramatic increase in domestic violence around the world due to lockdowns 24/7, an increase in general in violence against women because women are convenient targets, especially but not exclusively when race can be used as a further excuse for such cruelty. Sexual abuse in addition to physical abuse has skyrocketed. And so forth. . . .

Furthermore, every time war rears its gruesome head, we see gender roles locking into place like bars bolting shut. Men were not allowed to leave Ukraine with their refugee families, because they were needed for defense of their country, either in the army or as civilian volunteers, which many did become. Certainly there were women who also volunteered to stay and fight, or who had to stay, or who were and are simply unable to leave. But the refugee population, now at two and a half million people, was and is, as I’ve noted before, 98 percent women and children. Women who are facing not only exile, homelessness, poverty, and sexual abuse, but also possible widowhood and loss of family members.

Yet the gender dimension and sexual politics should not only be visible in the result; we need them to become just as visible in the origins of such crises, to begin with.

Angela Merkel, former chancellor of Germany, has said that when she first met with Vladimir Putin he, having learned she was afraid of large dogs, deliberately brought his own large, fierce dog, unleashed, to the meeting. Merkel noted “I understand why he has to do this, to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.” Russia had his manhood, not so subtly tinged with sadism. When I wrote The Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism, I explored men’s (and many women’s) fatal attraction to the eroticism that violently permeates patriarchal power structures, systems, and images–most notably in and under despots. Putin is a perfect example, both purveyor and victim of this twisted sexual politics.

Obsessed with manhood, he has flaunted that manhood regularly by staging judo sessions that he (naturally) won, being photographed with a rifle (always hitting his mark, mind you), posing with live tigers (who later turned out to be tranquillized), tiger cubs, and polar bears, plus risible displays of playing hockey, swimming, and riding bare-chested through the woods in Southern Siberia. He has posed as co-piloting a fighter jet, sailing on a nuclear-powered submarine, and descending 4,600 feet to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a mini-submarine on a four-hour mission to inspect crystals containing natural gas. All this honcho-macho stuff in addition to the standard militarized masculinity tropes–overseeing troops goose-step through Red Square and tanks roll down Moscow avenues–those very troops and tanks that Donald Trump so yearned to mimic in his own ridiculous failed grasp at manhood.

Moreover, Putin is quite short, and although women have been telling men . . . well, forever, that size really truly does not matter in sex because skill and affection are what actually count, most men seem to be hugely (forgive the pun) into size, Putin among them. It must gall him so, that China’s president Xi Jinping towers over him–and Xi is from an ethnic group, the Han Chinese, who are a fairly diminutive people. Not to speak of how livid Zelenski must make Putin, since the mild-mannered Ukrainian president has become a global hero; worse, he was actually once a comedian!

In a revealing recent conversation with President Emmanuel Macron of France, Putin quoted Soviet-era punk-rock lyrics about rape and necrophilia to demonstrate what Russia demands of Ukraine. So now Putin’s bombs rain down on a maternity hospital (a maternity hospital!) in the besieged city of Mariupol, killing at least three people and wounding 17, while big bad manly Putin whines that he didn’t do it and whimpers about the “economic war” the United States is waging against Russia. Meanwhile, an agreement to evacuate from six Ukrainian cities now appears spotty, to say the least, with most of the evacuations failing for the fourth day in a row, due to Russian attacks. Kamala Harris, our vice president — how I love saying that — flew to Poland to negotiate the tricky passage of military aid to Ukraine via Poland without triggering open war. As an aside, I must say that seeing this tough, smart, former prosecutor, now vice president, woman of color on the other side of some imaginary table from Vladimir, well, it sure gets my blood running strong.

In sum, the researchers cited in my January 31 blogpost this year were right. These scholars, based on more value-free research measures, are now finding strong political trends emerging from women, which all lead to peace. That’s not a matter of men defining women as inherently “peaceable”; it’s women demanding a future, for themselves, their kids, and other living things. It’s the opposite of the Demon Lover. There’s sexual politics for you.