What is it with men and torture?

Hint: It’s not just upbringing and culture.

Back in 2005 James Wolcott wrote of torture: “Women may take part — though I imagine it’s rare, and under duress — but only men could devise the intricate and cruel tortures and torture devices that have been inflicted over the centuries.”

This is one generalization about women that feminists let slide. Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib fame was a blip on torture’s radar screen and women would like to keep it that way. But what infuses men with the urge to torture?

For starters, never underestimate the impact of a hard-ass father. Then there are the tyrannies under which many live where rule by force is the norm. Meanwhile, for those men who live in a democracy like ours (however putative), our cultural cup runneth over with blood from movies like the “Saw” and “Hostel” series and video games like Mortal Kombat and Gods of War.

Then, of course, there’s “24,” which, in effect, gave license to embrace torture to a whole nation — including West Point cadets and Guantanamo personnel. Philippe Sands reports in the May Vanity Fair: “Jack Bauer had many friends at Guantanamo” said an administration lawyer asked to sign off on enhanced interrogation techniques. “He gave people lots of ideas.”

Wolcott adds: “Only [men] would draw up the blueprints for machines and procedures to exact the maximum amount of pain and humiliation just shy of death.”

At one time, diabolical machines were devised for torture: from the brank, the brazen bull, and the breaking wheel to the heretic’s fork, the instep borer and the iron maiden. Since then, other than the electronics of stun guns, torture implements have become more basic.

Today, a torturer is likely to equip himself with non-specialized, dual-use items like a baseball bats, cables, iron pipes, pliers, sticks, and maybe a hook on the ceiling for the strappado (suspension by the wrists, tied behind the back).

In the US the torturer’s arsenal is even more stripped down. But its effects are maximized by techniques designed by psychologists using, among other things, sequence, duration, and humiliation, not to mention, of course, near-death drowning experiences.

In other words, men who once would have applied themselves to devising the hardware now concentrate on the software, as it were, of the process itself. Men love this kind of brainstorming: Aside from designing software on the job, in their leisure time they play Rotisserie Baseball, Fantasy Football, and games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Speaking of dungeons, torture holds myriad other attractions to men. For instance. . .

What man doesn’t love basements? Actually, torture done in a basement is usually the province of a serial killer, the only form of life lower than a torturer. State or terrorist torture is usually carried out in a basement-like environment such as an interrogation room in a prison. Meanwhile, in some countries, like Pinochet’s Chile, where people were tortured in National Stadium, a sports site is used.

Torture is actually like a sport. In its cruelty it’s comparable to dog or cock fighting. Those are spectator sports, though, while torture is hands-on, though there’s no danger to the participant like, say, in Mixed Martial Arts. Yet you get your ultra-violence rocks off like in no other contact sport, even football. But, in common with spectator sports. . .

It calls for drinking. In fact, only an ideologue, a religious fundamentalist, or a psychopath is likely to torture sober. Though, outside of Abu Ghraib, it’s hard to imagine Americans who torture drinking while on duty. Troubling as that sounds, why should they? It’s not torture, they’re told — only enhanced interrogation techniques.

It lets you play with guns. Not actually, since torture seldom incorporates shooting. But hand-held electro-shock batons and stun guns are used in 20 countries.

Electricity is not all that electrifies. Women are often raped, sometimes by a roomful of torturers. Beyond that, the homo-erotic frisson is to die for. Not just the psycho-sexual thrill of hurting other men, including assaults on their sexual organs. But guys banding together to do work deemed invaluable. In other words. . .

Male bonding to the nth degree. Not just over the shared activity — they’re complicit in double super-secret work verboten under normal conditions. They’re thus bound together in a secret society.

Why get all bent out of shape over torture when it’s just guys being guys? A man has got to let off a little steam, doesn’t he? Sure — as long as he understands that his superiors may offer him up as a sacrificial lamb or turn him into a scapegoat to escape prosecution themselves.

10 replies »

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  2. Amnesty International points out that torture is not about getting information, but about exerting power over another person. That’s probably why it’s more a guy thing.

  3. Wait, what? Torture is now only the arena of the male? Even with photographic evidence to the contrary? This is ridiculous. Torture is the arena of the socially dysfunctional, psychopathic and broken moral codes, not gender. You present no evidence to your claims and instead ramble on about male stereotypes.

    And, for the record. I dont like basements, sports, drinking or guns. And yes, I have a penis.

  4. Have you read Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy? It’s difficult to read but unique, I think: both a survey of techniques and an examination of “clean” torture, its relationship to the governments it serves and the people who practice it, as well as its actual versus its perceived effectiveness…

    As I said, it’s a horrifying read, but an amazing accomplishment.

  5. Oh, and I think Anonywhat has a point. The prevalence of men in the history and development of institutionalized torture may well be the result of gender stereotypes, a “glass ceiling” effect of the perception that women are inherently gentler, weaker and more nurturing. Many, many women are capable of inflicting prolonged physical and mental agony for the sole purpose of exercising power over another human being, and not for days or months, for years. Given the required ideological incentive or chance at power, I have a feeling that more women than you imagine would make excellent, pitiless torturers.

    You may be right about the gadgetry, though.

  6. What ever happened to TRUTH SERUM? Why do we never hear about that anymore? No need to torture other than for that “power over another” thing that was made illegal so long ago.

  7. Because it’s a myth. The one you’ve probably heard referred to in movies – thiopental – is just another barbiturate. It will lower your inhibitions. It won’t make you lose all self-control or prevent you from lying, especially if you lie often and well.

    The idea of a truth serum is still very attractive to some:

    And if there were a “Google it and find out the truth for yourself” serum, I’d be all for it.

  8. Besides the fact that truth serum is a myth, torture isn’t about getting information. That can be more effectively done by buddying up to the prisoner, being kind and sympathetic to him/her. Torture is about humiliation, about exerting power, about breaking another human being’s mind, will, and self-respect.

  9. Not to be too cynical, but I’m doubting the author is married. You want to talk about torture try living with the same woman for many years.