Man blindfolded being tortured
Illustration: Brian Cronin
We've talked about equal rights, but what about equal wrongs? Find out the shocking truth about women's ability to inflict torture.
"Torture," Vanity Fairs' James Wolcott once wrote, is "the invention and production of men." Certainly, as details come to light about the CIA's abuse of Iraqi and Afghan detainees, those authorizing the waterboarding, wall slamming, and mock executions have been male. And although army reservist Lynndie England made headlines five years ago—photographed at Abu Ghraib with her left hand cocked like a pistol and aimed at the genitals of a naked prisoner—it was, in part, the rarity of the image that made it so disturbing.

But are women more capable of torture than we think? Polls show they are only slightly less likely to find it justifiable than men (47 percent versus 51 percent). Furthermore, scientists revealed decades ago how easy it is for an ordinary person to turn into a torturer. And a new study confirms that this "ordinary person" can just as easily be a she as a he.

The classic cruelty experiment was conducted at Yale in the early '60s by psychology professor Stanley Milgram, PhD. Each subject was assigned the role of teacher and asked to test a student, who sat on the opposite side of a thin wall. Whenever the student answered a question incorrectly, the subjects were instructed by a man in a lab coat to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks (in reality, the student was an actor who felt nothing). As the severity of the "shocks" increased, the student screamed and begged to be released, cried that he was in excessive pain, even that his heart was bothering him, and ultimately stopped responding. Still, 65 percent of the subjects continued to shock him to the maximum voltage.

Milgram performed 18 versions of the experiment on men. Surprisingly, the one time he used female subjects, they shocked at the same rate. But he never followed up. Fast-forward to the lab of Santa Clara University psychology professor Jerry Burger, PhD, who replicated Milgram's study (adjusting for ethical concerns) and published his findings this year. Burger's subjects—70 adults—included both men and women. He got nearly the same results as Milgram, and there was no difference between the sexes. Under certain conditions, Burger says, humans carry out acts of cruelty they would otherwise consider reprehensible. In both studies the presence of an authority figure (the man in the lab coat) appeared to factor heavily into the subjects' continued willingness to shock the student. Also, the subjects had little time to think about the consequences of their actions, the punishment increased incrementally, and the victim was depersonalized. Finally, according to other studies, being in a group makes it easy for subjects to think, "Everybody's doing it, so it must be okay."

Of course it's one thing to be ordered to shock somebody, another to be the person giving the order. But even here women are perfectly capable, according to Darius Rejali, PhD, a Reed College political science professor who has studied torture for nearly 30 years. The reason women haven't done more tormenting throughout history, he maintains, is simply that they've been denied opportunities. "It's rare that women get to do the torturing," as he puts it. "Those jobs have mostly been taken by men." (Although it is not technically torture, women also don't seem to have a problem forcing others into sexual slavery. A recent United Nations report showed that more than 60 percent of those convicted of human trafficking in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are females.)

"Few of us will ever find ourselves interrogating a terrorist," says Burger. "But we can all point to times when we did something we are not proud of." For example, your boss might ask you to fudge the books, or pretend you didn't see him doing it. "The answer is to become more aware of how powerful a given situation can be. When we say, 'Just this once,' we should recognize that taking the first step will make the next step—perhaps a slightly larger ethical lapse—easier. When we think, "Everybody's doing it, so it must be okay," or "I'm only doing what I was told," those are also red flags. And if something doesn't feel quite right, we should take time to think before acting."

In the end, he says, "Milgram's subjects were not sadistic. They were in a situation that made it difficult to act otherwise."

Keep Reading: How an amazing pyschologist is helping torture victims heal


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