Non-State Torture: A Response to Ibrahim Kira's "A Critical Outlook at Torture …"

Dialogues with –
A Critical Outlook at Torture Definition, Structure, Dynamics, and Interventions a Brief Research Report by Ibrahim A. Kira

Comments by –
Jeanne Sarson, MEd, BScN, RN

Kira’s reconceptualizing and re-defining torture by increasing the inclusiveness to acts of torture perpetrated by non-State actors within “inter- or intra-group discord or conflict” appears to relate to the public sphere. Reconceptualizing who non-State torturers can be and who the persons are that they torture must be expanded to the private or domestic sphere. From a global feminist human rights perspective, human rights are women’s rights. Human right instruments such the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely translated document in the world (Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, 1996-2017), states “no one shall be subjected to torture”—article 5. This applies equally to all human beings—article 1. For women and girls my colleague, Linda MacDonald, and I have supported since 1993, the torturers exist within their intimate relationships. Women report being born into organized non-State torture (NST) perpetrating family systems (Sarson & MacDonald, 2016) or suffering spousal inflicted NST (Sarson & MacDonald, 2009). Houses, basements, cottages, in-doors and out-doors, any place where these torturers are secure are the torture chambers.

The women we know fit into and have withstood forms of torture listed in Kira’s Table 1, which are grouped into “six factors”. However, they report suffering non-listed forms of torture. For example, electric shocking, water tortures, forced impregnations and abortions, and being trafficked, as toddlers and or as adults, by, for instance, parent(s), inter-generational family members, spouses, and to other like-minded perpetrators. When a woman is born into a family unit that inflicts NS, 10,000 torture-rapes over 20 years can occur (Sarson & MacDonald, 2012). This specific account does not include trafficking or gang-raped in all body orifices, forced involvement in torture-based pornography, or bestiality. Re-defining and reconceptualizing inclusiveness must acknowledge that torture is inflicted in the private or domestic sphere.

My next comment addresses Kira’s conceptualization that when a torturer tortures it is “not a response to internal or external subjective drive.” Based on the NST descriptions by women Linda and I know and in writings about State torturers such as by Sampson (2005) who was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi Arabian prison for more than two years, both non-State and State male torturers express “Internal or external subjective drives”—that of inflicting and deriving sexualized torture pleasures. Seldom is this reality discussed. I focus on male non-State and State torturers’ as Linda and I do not have sufficient comparative experience that relates to female torturers. The torturers’ “internal or external subjective drive” of sexualized torture pleasures needs to be examined in a multi-layered manner.

I offer these evidentiary multi-layered considerations:

  1. To perpetrate penis raping male torturers require an anatomical, physiological erection. The sexualized torture pleasure can include climatic ejaculation.
  2. Multi-torturer raping such as in group- or gang-raping may initiate a form of voyeuristic group-bonding, reinforcing a group like-minded belongingness that makes their acts of sexualized torture acceptable and possibly more pleasurable.
  3. Inflicting sexualized torture is a torturer’s weapon and expression of having ‘absolute’ power over another human being. Whether committed by single or group non-State or State actor(s), inflicting sexualized torture has the potential impact of destroying the tortured person’s relational sense of Self’.

Lynn, a Canadian woman, who took two years to tell Linda and me her story of being held captive, tortured, and trafficked by her spouse and three of his friends (Sarson & MacDonald, 2009), told us, “Taking their turn at gang raping me . . . . when they finished . . . I felt utterly destroyed! . . . I became piece of meat”. Sampson (2005) wrote when raped by a male State torturer that, “I felt so violated and degraded in a way the other brutality could not achieve . . . it is an effective means . . . of destroying . . . [the] sense of self” (p. 141-143).

Increasing inclusiveness by reconceptualizing and re-defining torture needs to uphold a human rights model acknowledging all persons so violated. The specific population or group one is concerned about can be particularly identified. The torturer’s subjective sexualized torture-raping pleasures must not be made invisible. All persons so tortured must be supported in their truth-telling denunciations to reinstate their human dignity.


Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. (1996-2017). About the universal declaration of human rights translation project. Geneva, CH: United Nations. Retrieved from

Sampson, W. (2005). Confessions of an innocent man Torture and survival in a Saudi prison. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart.

Sarson, J., & MacDonald, L. (2009). Defining torture by non-state actors in the Canadian private sphere. First Light, 29-33.

Sarson, J., & MacDonald, L. (2012). Torture victimization—Child to adult: Flashbacks and Connection with first responders, Part 1. Sexual Assault Report, 15(5), 65-66, 68, 72-74.

Sarson, J., & MacDonald, L. (2016). Seeking equality—Justice and women’s and girls’ human right not to be subjected to non-state torture (263-281). In J. Scutt (Ed.). Women, law and culture Conformity, contradiction and conflict (263-281). Cham, CH: Palgrave MacMillan.

Contact Jeanne Sarson.

"Youth Do All Such Things to Survive Here”

Dialogues with -- 
"Youth Do All Such Things to Survive Here”: A Qualitative Study of Challenges Facing War-Affected Youth in Sierra Leone

Comments by
Mariko Siegert
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Thank you, Dr. Efevbera and Dr. Betancourt, for this amazing work. I agree with your statement that it is important to conduct research and understand phenomena through the understanding of the people(s) who have experienced them. I think it is critical that researchers pay particular attention to the specific context of the phenomenon. 

I have two questions for you regarding the limitations of this research and possible remedies that may exist. First, it reads that the "authors chose not to disaggregate caregivers from youth" (p. 259) for the 2010 sample, which I think was appropriate. Some youth may also be caregivers, and setting a specific age threshold to determine the participants' social roles may not only be difficult but also problematic. I think, however, the role of the participants' perceived social role would be an important indicator to study the post-conflict challenges that individuals are facing. Could it have been possible to purposively recruit individuals in Freetown that were not youth (e.g., those in their 40s and above) and those who were under the age of 18 (or 15, etc.--an average age that is considered the beginning of adulthood in the community) who do not identify themselves as caregivers? What might some of the problems be with this sampling approach?

Second, you discussed that the level of war-/trauma-exposure was not considered while sampling. How could this have been measured, in other words, with which instruments? I wonder how culturally appropriate established psychometrics and instruments developed in the U.S. or the West might be. Do you think you would have developed a set of original, culturally appropriate tests if you had been able to measure them for this study? Also, how would you have defined and interpreted the different levels of war-/trauma-expousre (e.g., low, middle, high, or with scoring)?

I am a first-year Ph.D student and various challenges you discussed as limitations of this research were very thought-provoking. I also learned a little about the FL, which was one of the many takeaways from your research. Thank you so much.

Contact Mariko Siegert