Administration Denies Reports That Abu Ghraib Photos Depict Rape

Although the outcry that arose when President Barack Obama declined to release new images of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib eventually died down, it is back, thanks to a report in the Telegraph that the officer in charge of the investigation described the pictures as showing sexual abuse of prisoners.

Major General Antonio Taguba, now retired, conducted the investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib and had this to say about some of the pictures Obama is refusing to release out of a concern that they will further endanger U.S. (and British) troops.

"These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.

"I am not sure what purpose their release would serve other than a legal one and the consequence would be to imperil our troops, the only protectors of our foreign policy, when we most need them, and British troops who are trying to build security in Afghanistan.

"The mere description of these pictures is horrendous enough, take my word for it."

According to these reports, the photos depict the rapes of both male and female detainees by military personnel, the forcible removal of a female detainee's clothing and the rape of multiple prisoners with inanimate objects. The Administration is denying that the photographs depict those acts.

The Telegraph report has provoked a variety of thoughtful reactions among people, some of whom — like Vanessa Gezari — now agree with Obama's decision and the reasoning behind it. There's an interesting debate to be had, too, about whether it's appropriate, given things like rape shield laws and the stigmas attached to being a victim of sexual abuse, to release pictures of victims being assaulted — which is certainly something that would not be done in the United States in a criminal case — or whether the need to confront the true horror of what was done in our name trumps the right to some privacy of the victims.

Then there's Susannah Breslin's take. You know it's going to be bad when a story about pictures of rape and assault starts off like this.

The Daily Telegraph reports unreleased Abu Ghraib photographs include sexual torture and "rape."

Why are there quotes around the word rape? The denotation of the quotations, in this case, is to indicate that it wasn't rape, in much the same way that I refer to the criminal "justice" system when talking about sexual assault cases. So, apparently, some of the rapes in Abu Ghraib, in Breslin's mind, don't qualify — and I don't think I'm going too far in suggesting that the rapes that Breslin thinks weren't rape-y enough were the ones that didn't involve an actual penis.

Suffice it to say that it doesn't get better. Breslin, who's built a successful career writing about sex, pornography and sex work (among other things) then sneaks in this gem.

What makes this new photographic revelation tricky, and is what, I suspect, led to Obama's some say "stunning" reversal, is that these photographs, for all intents and purposes, are pornographic.

And this is where I said to myself, "Hold up!" Because pornography isn't simply representations of any and all sex acts — even if you want to define genital torture, forcible anal penetration with a tube and wires and ripping off a prisoner's clothes to expose her breasts as "sex acts" as opposed to "acts of physical violence that happen to involve body parts also occasionally used for sex acts."

The American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law agree on two things about the definition of the word pornography: it has to be intended to incite arousal, and the images or words need to be either "sexually explicit" or "erotic," respectively. Were the pictures intended to cause arousal in others? One assumes that, like most of the rest of the pictures taken by the people who perpetrated the many acts of abuse at Abu Ghraib, the intention was to first further humiliate the victims and to display the abusers' own power. That they depict sexual acts or might titillate the rapists or others probably didn't factor that far into the equation. Without seeing them, I have no doubt they're not erotic, though they may be sexually explicit.

Breslin's conflation of "sexually explicit imagery" with pornography is pretty problematic for another reason. For an industry that has long struggled to define itself as one in which women are fully-consenting adult participants, I can't think that the pornography industry would be happy with anyone defining pictures of heinous crimes of physical abuse that might feature genitals as "pornography." Are pictures taken in the course of rape exams "pornographic" because they prominently feature women's genitals? Not everything that depicts sex is pornographic — even when the depictions are deliberately titillating. Are consensual, yet R-rated, sex scenes in films "pornographic" because they depict erotic acts? Is Rodin's sculpture Cupid & Psyche pornography? No, right? Defining pictures of physical violence as "pornographic" just because they feature physically violent penetrations is, at best, sloppy and, at worst, offensive to people in the porn industry and victims of sexual violence alike.

And, just when you thought it wouldn't get worse, Breslin says the real reason that Obama won't release the photos, but should nonetheless, is that they'll turn us all on.

Rightly or wrongly, in all likelihood, these photographs will titillate. All the P.C. politics of the mind cannot override the un-P.C. desires of the libido. But it is in spite of this fact that these photographs must be released.

Those pictures might titillate Breslin — and I have no doubt that there will be people in this world who already enjoy graphic depiction of non-consensual acts of sexual violence who will additionally get off on these — but I don't think anyone in the Administration is actually worried about too many Americans getting their rocks off. And it's just strange to couple a call for Americans to bear witness to the acts of sexual violence done in our name with an admission — nay, promise — that we will find the pictures titillating.

Barack Obama Attempts To Block Alleged Torture Photos [Telegraph]
Abu Ghraib Abuse Photos 'Show Rape' [Telegraph]
Pentagon Denies Report Iraq Prison Photos Show Rape [Reuters]
Releasing More Detainee Photos Could Make Abuses More Difficult to Discover [Double X]
The Abu Ghraib Photos We Can't Bear to See [Double X]