This question is shorthand for a larger and more nuanced set of questions that has emerged over the last 24 hours here and here as people engage in this very interesting and important discussion about rape, especially wartime rape and related post-apocalyptic rape cultures.
“The switch” is a term I first heard from a student, who wrote a term paper for me on this in 1993. The basic idea of a switch would be supported if more or less randomly (though age biased, likely) selected men, put into a certain situation, tended to commit rape on a much larger scale … or more exactly, a much larger percentage of the men rape under those circumstances … than would ever be predicted based on anything anyone knows about these men before or after the circumstances prevail.
In other words, when all the young men stay home, they are mostly not going to rape anyone. In contrast, when the same exact men go off to war, an alarming percentage of them rape. Switch off, switch on.
In the gentile society in which we imagine ourselves living (at least according to many of the comments on the above cited post) the switch is off, and stays off for most people’s lives. But there are circumstances in which most men’s switch is turned on. The switch being on does not mean that rape will happen. It simply means that the man (with the switch on) is now a rapist, whether he actually rapes or not (but he probably will), and when the switch is off, he is not (so he probably won’t). It is a bit of a metaphor, and a strained one (see comments by commenter Elizabeth) at that.
The evidence for what is often known as “wartime rape” (which the student would simply refer to as the conditions under which the switch is on) is both hard to adduce and overwhelmingly strong. There are a lot of reasons why it is difficult to enumerate rape in wartime. However, people have been thinking and writing about this for a long time, and even collecting some data, and those who are in the business of psychology, sociology, criminology, and behavioral biology who study such things as rape and homicide have largely come to the understanding that rape in wartime is often quite common, that American soldiers in Vietnam represent a middling case (which means it is shocking and disturbing) while Bosnia/Serbia represents a truly over the top example.
But there are many (see comments on the posts cited above) who simply refuse to accept this, mainly for the simple reason that it can’t be so, or if that does not work as the reason, because it is an affront to the men in the military to suggest this. I understand this second point quite well, and some of my best friends are men who were in Vietnam. For the moment, I simply choose to believe that none of the men I happen to know ever raped anybody. They are men that I know would never do that. But as a scientist I have come to accept that it is quite likely that men have something that can be described metaphorically as a rape switch, that those men whom I know are not special, and that while the switch has been off the whole time I’ve known them, it was probably on while they were serving in long term combat rolls in Vietnam. At the moment, I’m not asking any questions.
Would you like some evidence? The evidence is complex, abundant, and cited all over the place. If you are a person who simply does not want to believe this, then I can do little to help you. But if you are a person who wants to insist it is not true, please consider addressing the evidence. I can give you a starting place.
The following quote comes from Gottschall (2004). The sources cited by Gottschall are all included below.
While there are no reliable statistics on wartime rape due to the reporting biases of the opposing sides and the reluctance of victims to come forward, these increases can range from the calculated 300% to 400% increases over American civilian rape rates that accompanied American breakouts in France and Germany toward the end of World War II (Morris, 2000, p. 170) to rates of increase that likely reached into the thousands in the weeks after the Red Army first swept into Berlin and committed between 20,000 and 100,000 rapes (Brownmiller, 1975; Ryan, 1966; Siefert, 1994). Incidentally, these figures represent good examples of the mushiness of wartime rape statistics: The American figures are almost certainly underestimated because they are based solely on rapes reported to authorities, and estimates of the number of Red Army rapes in Berlin climb as high as 1,000,000 (Grossman, 1999, p. 164). A partial list of countries that have been identified as loci of mass rapes conducted by military or paramilitary forces just in the 20th century includes Belgium and Russia during World War I; Russia, Japan, Italy, Korea, China, the Philippines, and Germany during World War II; and in one or more conflicts, Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Burma, Bosnia, Cambodia, Congo, Croatia, Cyprus, East Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Kuwait, Kosovo, Liberia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Pakistan, Rwanda, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, Zaire, and Zimbabwe.1
1This list is drawn from the following sources: Amnesty International (1997, 1998, 2000); Barstow (2000, p. 3); Brownmiller (1975); Chelela (1998); Ghiglieri (2000, p. 90); Littlewood (1997); Menon (1998); Neier (1998, pp. 172-191); Oosterveld (1998, pp. 64-67); Swiss and Giller (1993); Tanaka (1999, pp. 174-176); Thomas and Regan (1994).
Amnesty International. (1997, February 19). Rape, killings and other human rights violations by the security forces. Retrieved March 1, 2003, from http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engAFR620061997
Amnesty International. (1998, November 23). Democratic Republic of Congo: War against unarmed civilians. Retrieved April 15, 2003, from http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engAFR620361998
Amnesty International. (2000, June 30). Sierra Leone: Rape and other forms of sexual violence must be stopped. Retrieved April 20, 2003, from http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/2000/15104800.htm
Barstow, A. (2000). Introduction. In A. Barstow (Ed.), War’s dirty secret: Rape, prostitution, and other crimes against women (pp. 1-12). Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.
Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our will: Men, women, rape. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Brownmiller, S. (1993, January 4). Making female bodies the battlefield. Newsweek, 37.
Chelala, C. (1998). Algerian abortion controversy highlights rape of war victims. Lancet, 351, 1413-1414.
Ghiglieri, M. P. (2000). The dark side of man: Tracing the origins of male violence. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Gottschall, Jonathan (2004). Explaining wartime rape Journal of sex research, May
Grossman, A. (1999). A question of silence: The rape of German women by Soviet occupation soldiers. In N. Dombrowski (Ed.), Women and war in the twentieth century (pp. 116-137). New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.
Littlewood, R. (1997). Military rape. Anthropology Today, 13, 7 17.
MacKinnon, C. A. (1994b). Turning rape into pornography: Postmodern genocide. In A. Stiglmayer (Ed.), Mass rape: The war against women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (pp. 73-81). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Menon, R. (1998). Borders and bodies: Recovering women in the national interest. In 1. L. Sajor (Ed.), Common grounds: Violence against women in war and armed conflict situations (pp. 301 338). Quezon City, Phillipines: Asian Center for Women’s Human Rights.
Morris, M. (2000). In war and peace: Rape, war, and military culture. In A. Barstow (Ed.), War’s dirty secret: Rape, prostitution, and other crimes against women (pp. 167-203). Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.
Neier, A. (1998). War crimes: Brutality, genocide, terror, and the struggle for justice. New York: Random House.
Oosterveld, V. (1998). When women are the spoils of war. UNESCO Courier, 51, 64-67.
Ryan, C. (1966). The last battle. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Siefert, R. (1994). War and rape: A preliminary analysis. In A. Stiglmayer (Ed.), Mass rape: The war against women in Bosnia-Herzigovina (pp. 54-72). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Swiss, S., & Giller, J. (1993). Rape as a crime of war: A medical perspective. JAMA, 270, 612-615.
Tanaka, Y. (1999). Introduction. In M. R. Henson (Ed.), Comfort woman: A Filipina’s story of prostitution and slavery under the Japanese military (pp. vii-xxi). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Thomas, D., & Regan, R. (1994). Rape in war: Challenging the tradition of impunity. SAIS Review, 14, 81-99.