Torture report

Rectal feeding is rape – but don’t expect the CIA to admit it

The CIA is having a hard time admitting to any crimes, let alone male-on-male sex acts.

Of all the revelations made about the “enhanced interrogation methods” used by the US Central Intelligence Agency on detainees in the aftermath of 9/11, the use of waterboarding and rectal feeding have garnered the most attention. In the case of the latter in particular, this was the first time many people had even heard of such a thing.

Initially used in response to prisoner hunger strikes, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found this allegedly “necessary” and “legitimate” medical practice – also referred to as a “nutrient enema” – was also used by the CIA as a form of torture and control.

According to the committee report “at least five CIA detainees were subjected to "rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity". The report identifies a chief of Interrogations referring to medically unnecessary rectal feeding and hydration as illustrative of the interrogator’s “total control over the detainee”.

Alongside the psychological effects of this torture, physical injuries were sustained by at least one detainee as a result of rectal feeding. The detainee was “diagnosed with chronic hemorrhoids, an anal fissure, and symptomatic rectal prolapse”.

Some of the report’s findings are reminiscent of the US-led torture, humiliation and abuse that went on at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. There, prisoners were stripped naked, forced into submissive and degrading positions – such as bending over while pulling their buttocks apart – and threatened with anal rape. In one case, a prisoner had what appeared to be a broom handle inserted into his rectum.

Both the Abu Ghraib revelations and those of the Senate committee demonstrate that the threat, simulation of, or actual penetration of male prisoners has been central to the torture and interrogation practices of the American military and intelligence services.

Unspoken intentions

Of course, the penetration of women has been long been a horrific aspect of warfare. Such atrocities have been well documented and action is beginning to be taken at the international level. Indeed, the US government claims it “will continue to stand strong against these forms of inhumanity”.

By comparison, there has been very little attention given to the penetration of men during war, conflict or internment. One might argue that the key difference here is that the raping of women is acknowledged as a sexual crime: rape is a form of sexual domination and its methods of control operate on a sexual register.

At no point in the Senate committee’s report do the words “sex”, “sexual” or “sexualised” feature in relation to the treatment of the prisoners themselves. Sexual abuse and sexual assault is mentioned in the report twice, both times they refer to a threat made to a prisoner that “his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused”.

But dominating detainees through rectal feeding and rehydration is sexual. It relates heavily to a stereotyped vision of homosexuality. The “spectre” of homosexual sex pervades discussions of the penetrated male anus.


Camp X-Ray detainees. Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy


Think of the ways in which men talk about being dominated, humiliated, punished or controlled in estern culture. The culture of sexualised domination in the prison system is an example. In jails, domination, hierarchy and punishment is performed through anal penetration. Then there are jokes in sitcoms or other TV shows that revolve around prostate examinations. This mundane medical examination is “tainted” by a latent sexual intent for comic effect – jesting: “I hope the doctor took you out for dinner first,” for example.

Owning up

The fact that the Senate committee failed to see rectal torture as a sexualised form of abuse points towards several interconnected issues. It suggests an unwillingness to implicate the CIA in a programme of systematic rape and to identify CIA operatives as rapists.

It serves to hide male-on-male sexualised violence and detaches these acts from the legal, political and human rights debates that are raging – the very debates that might help prisoners seek compensation or legal redress.

What’s more, the refusal to recognise the sexualised violence meted out to male detainees demonstrates a deep-seated ambivalence towards both male homosexuality and male rape. To acknowledge rectal torture as sexual would not only implicate CIA interrogators as sex abusers, it would also serve to “queer” this world-famous intelligence organisation, destabilising its sense of patriarchal authority.

Male rape (like all rape) is about power but as well as tainting the victim, who is “queered” by such an act, the perpetrator is tainted too. They have engaged in, and even instigated, a queer sex act.

This is not to suggest that homosexual sex is about power, or is coercive or is rape. But in a culture that continues to stigmatise and marginalise homosexual identity, anal rape represents both a gross violation of power and a violation that cannot be spoken about for fear of its power turning in upon the aggressor.

While the Senate committee’s report never explores exactly why rectal feeding and hydration methods would be seen as a method of exerting control over detainees, Western culture’s preoccupation with sexualising the male anus suggests that this domination is indeed a sexualised act.

Such revelations come at a time when society is, allegedly, more accepting of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Yet the revelations made in this report show that homosexuality remains a symbol of degradation.

The very worst thing that can be done to a male prisoner, it seems, is to penetrate him anally. The power of such a violation continues to reside not only in the act itself, but also in our inability to acknowledge it for the sexual act that it is.

This post originally appeared on The Conversation.


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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.