Wartime Rape, QAnon and Saving the World: The Ms. Q&A with Mia Bloom

Dr. Mia Bloom.

Dr. Mia Bloom’s recent article in The Conversation, “Rape by Russian soldiers in Ukraine is the latest example of a despicable wartime crime that spans the globe,” discusses rape as a key feature and strategic logic of Russia’s war on the Ukraine. After reading it, I was compelled to reach out to Bloom for an interview.

Bloom is a professor of communication and Middle East studies at Georgia State University and an international security fellow at New America, a liberal think tank. She is a member of the U.N. terrorism research network (UNCTED), a member of the radicalization expert advisory board for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and is regularly featured as an expert contributor on CNN, CNN International, MSNBC and Fox for commentary on terrorism, ethnic conflict, rape in war, conspiracy theories and QAnon.

Bloom is the editor of Stanford University Press’ new series on terrorism and political violence and is the author of six books, including Bombshell: Women and Terror (2011); Small Arms: Children and Terror (with John Horgan, 2019); and Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon (with Sophia Moskalenko, 2021).

What follows is the transcript of our discussion, edited for clarity and readability. 

Stacy Keltner: I would like to start with your recent piece for The Conversation about women raped by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. In the article you discuss wartime rape as “gendercide” and as “a deliberate tactic of war” that is not random and has been unacknowledged historically as a war crime until very recently.

Can you talk about the piece and how you came to write it?

Dr. Mia Bloom: I’m glad that this [interview] is focused on feminism because the story I’m about to tell you is a very sad story.

I had written about rape and war as part of my dissertation in 1999. And I had applied for the women in public policy postdoc at Harvard and was told that I was an alternate, and I should apply the next year. But, I made the mistake of sharing the proposal with someone, who didn’t mention anything, and then the following year I was told, “We’re really sorry, but someone submitted a project very similar to this and we’re giving it to them.” It was one of those moments where I thought: That’s it, I’m leaving academia.

This is like a den of thieves or, you know, shark-infested waters, and I didn’t think I had what it takes. I was a visiting assistant professor, newly minted, and a senior female faculty came into my office, saw me crying. She looked at me and she’s like, What’s going on? I told her, and she looked at me and she said, What else you got? I said, well, the project was going to look at rape and war, child soldiers, and suicide terrorism. Now, this is 2000. She goes straight to, “Do the third one”—and I wouldn’t say as luck would have it, but as the unusual karma of the universe would have it, I was working on terrorism when 9/11 happened. And, it’s because this female, senior faculty was like, These terrible things happenyou need to pivot because, you know, academia is unfair and the situation is unfair and you’re not gonna get any kind of justice in this. 

So, I backburner’ed the rape and war stuff because this was a very bad experience. I’ll be honest with you. And so, I wrote Dying to Kill, and I ended up getting a MacArthur fellowship to write on the three issues.

The next book looked at women and terrorism, as you mentioned. I wrote another book on children and terrorism, which was the child soldier part. And, I distinguished between what were child soldiers in Africa and what ISIS is doing, or the Pakistani Taliban that looked a little different. And, I really approached the rape stuff very cautiously because I had been really badly burned by this experience in 1999. And so when it started happening in Ukraine, I went to my dissertation chapters, and I pulled out sort of bits and pieces of it, updated it for what was going on with Russia and Ukraine, and that’s what The Conversation published. And so, I sort of feel like it took 23 years, but I got it back.

Keltner: Your reference to Putin’s description of the invasion of Ukraine through the shocking lyrics of a Soviet-era punk band are chilling and revealing. The lyrics describe rape and necrophilia: “You sleep my beauty, you’re going to have to put up with it anyway.

Can you say a little more about how that has been received by Ukrainians and why you think the strategic logic of wartime rape may not be as effective for Putin as it has been historically?

Bloom: So, we’ve seen, for example, bus stop posters where a Ukrainian woman is pictured holding a gun to Putin saying “I’m not your beauty,” right? I think that Ukrainian women have basically said, “No, we are not accepting this, and we’re not taking it.” In some ways it has a real take-back-the-night kind of vibe to it where the women are refusing to be victims again.

But, you know, what’s so interesting is that Sophia Moskalenko, who is my co-author on Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon, which was the book that we published last summer. She’s a native speaker. She’s Ukrainian, and she speaks Russian and a number of other languages. And she was just recently in Ukraine delivering humanitarian aid. And, you know, so most people go on spring break, and they go to Cancun. She goes to Ukraine to deliver humanitarian aid! So, she’s pretty amazing.

One of the things that we did was we looked back through the history of Russia’s various occupations, and there has been a consistent war on women wherever the Russians have expanded or have been involved in a conflict. And so in Ukraine we’ve seen things like Russians using Ukrainian women as sex slaves or raping women in front of their children or raping the children in front of their parents. I mean, this is something that is horrific. We have associated it with groups like ISIS and the Yuzidis. But, when you look at the history of Russian abuses, you see that they were doing it after World War II.

And in fact, there was a 2019 report, a human rights report, that said Russians used raped in the conflict in Chechnya in 1999-2000, in Georgia in 2008, and in 2014 in Donbas, Crimea. So, this is hardly new. This is now no longer a bug of Russian projection of their military might. It’s a feature—one of the options Russian soldiers use.

I think the reason that I really wanted to write the piece was that for the longest time you have had this misconception that this kind of violation happens in the Global South. It’s those countries, those people, you know, Rwanda and Darfur or ISIS, like you are pointing at them and in this process, othering the perpetrators. We saw this also in the way in which the refugees were portrayed at the outset in February.

These are the same countries that turn the hoses on Syrians and Africans that were welcoming Ukrainian refugees. And I’m very happy that they welcome the Ukrainian refugees. But again, the language that was used in the media was in some ways covering certain racial assumptions about where atrocities happen and where they’re not supposed to happen, despite the fact that we’ve had multiple world wars and, for example, the Bosnian war in the ’90s. I don’t know why everybody seemed so surprised. They are less surprised when it happens in Darfur or with ISIS against the Yazidis population, but really shocked that Russian soldiers are engaging in this kind of behavior.

There has been a consistent war on women wherever the Russians have expanded or have been involved in a conflict.

Dr. Mia Bloom
Women wearing floral crowns and holding signs covered in fake blood demonstrate outside Downing Street in London on April 10, 2022, against Russian war atrocities targeting civilians, including killings and rape. (Wiktor Szymanowicz / Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Keltner: Could you say a little more about the designation of rape as a war crime and why it took so long?

Bloom: You hit upon a very interesting point in the introduction, which I neglected to address, which is that for a very, very long time rape was seen as a crime against a man’s property and this whole idea of the family honor being so embedded with a woman’s virginity and purity. You didn’t use words like ‘rape’ 100 years ago. They would say “outraged,” or you would compensate the father for the loss of the purity of the daughter, as if you had trespassed on the land. And I think that that’s part of the problem now, keeping in mind the aftermath of the Bosnian war.

And then again, in 2008, the U.N. has designated, with the establishment of the Rome Statute and then the International Criminal Court, rape as a war crime, as well as a crime of torture and a crime against humanity. And I think it’s important that we understand that in the aftermath of Bosnia, maybe because again it was white women and white men who were perpetrating the crimes against white victims, it’s now sort of more acceptable. We’re also in a different moment where, post #MeToo, women can talk about these things and with less fear of victim blaming or victim shaming.

For a very, very long time rape was seen as a crime against a man’s property.

Dr. Mia Bloom

Keltner: Your expertise spans terrorism, child soldiers, rape in war, conspiracy theories and extremism. Is there an overarching theme or thread (or set of themes or threads) that runs throughout your work?

One overarching theme, for example, seems to be weaponization, or the process by which something or someone becomes a weapon—which could be people, acts or even theories. Does that make sense? I’m just interested in the connection you may see across your work, from child soldiers to QAnon. 

Bloom: The original project that had those three parts—when Rose McDermot said to me, What else you got?—was looking at atrocities and barbarism. I was basically trying to understand—again, coming from a neoliberal perspective of, you know, kumbaya, shouldn’t we all strive for world peace and being kind to each other—how do we explain these horrible acts that people perpetrate against civilians?

And I think that sort of was the way in which I was understanding all of these different things that I think you’ve accurately articulated as weaponization because if you think about it, I looked at suicide terrorism, which was a tactic, and then I looked at women and children who were basically weaponized to engage in more terrorism as a tactic, but it was also that anything can be weaponized, including social media.

And this is where conspiracy theories and QAnon comes in, and Sophia [Moskalenko] and I both approached—because Christopher Wray of the FBI and then Alejandro Mayorkas, and even Merrick Garland, all were saying that QAnon had the possibility, the potential for terrorism—we came into it as “experts in terrorism.” Sophia [Moskalenko]’s written multiple books on radicalization and the psychology of terrorism, and I had done more of the tactics: Who are the actors, who are engaging in it, what’s the recruitment processes look like?

We sort of thought we would see terrorism because everyone was saying terrorism. In fact, we saw something different: What we saw was the weaponization of social media and these closed information systems that were echo chambers. So it was a radicalization, but not necessarily terrorism. And, I think that this is where there was the overlap.

We were also concerned because a number of independent surveys—that have been conducted either by American Enterprises Institute (AEI), which is a conservative think tank in D.C., as well as the Institute for the Study of Religion—these surveys found that about 31 to 33 percent (depending on whether you were a Republican or evangelical), [or] as many as 30 million adults believe in some degree in QAnon. That would be very problematic because if it was a terrorist group, it would be the largest terrorist group in the history of the world. If you put all the terrorist groups together and count them, you would not get 30 million people. Right? So, that’s where it’s important to make the distinction.

Keltner: You talk in the article about how the aim to destroy or deconstruct a culture focuses on women as a first target. Given your background in gender and ethnic conflict and your recent work on QAnon, what is your take on increasing right-wing attacks on bodily autonomy in the U.S., but also across the globe?

Bloom: It is very important to point out that although the vast majority of the people who were arrested in association with Jan. 6, 2021 were male, women were very much behind the scenes pulling the strings, recruiting, paying for it—Justice Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas, as an example, and in addition, the heiress of the Publix fortune. So you have a number of women who were front and center in disseminating QAnon—QAnon influencers. To look at it this way, it does seem that it is about the control of women’s bodies, either the control of women’s bodies not to have the choice, whether they’re going to have to be pregnant or not be pregnant, but then also this idea of trafficking—that the women are being exploited by this shadowy cabal.

This is where many of the women involved in QAnon are the key nodes in the dissemination. It’s when women got pulled into QAnon, that it sort of jumped the shark, where it’s on the open platforms. It was on Instagram; it got into the yoga community, the vegan community, the natural childbirth community. These were all communities that we tended to associate with the left wing. So it’s one of the reasons why 6 percent of the people who agreed with the statement that there was a global cabal of blood-drinking pedophiles running the world—6 percent identified as Democrats. And, I think it’s partly because there was in May 2020 a campaign, a hashtag campaign called “Save the Children.” A lot of women got pulled into QAnon and down the rabbit hole in part or as a result of this campaign.

And, when you look at it, what was really behind the campaign—again, to circle back to this issue of racial othering—was that the children who were being trafficked, the children who were in danger were all the white, blonde children. It was appealing to a suburban white Republican woman to basically say, Black and brown men are coming for your kids. And that was a way of getting them to the voting polls and making sure that they were going to vote for the Republicans because in 2018, it’s the reason why Democrats control the Senate and the House.

In 2018, there was a little bit of a blue wave, not a huge wave, but a lot of Republican women didn’t vote, or they may have even voted for Democrats. What happened with this campaign? It was so effective that more women voted for Donald Trump in 2020 than did in 2016, despite everything that we knew about him in those four years, despite that loss in 2018. This campaign successfully pulled people back to the Republican party.

When you looked at the #SaveTheChildren campaign, it was about blonde, bruised and battered girls, and this was your daughter. We actually did a study of this, a more quantitative study working with Cody Bantain from the University of Maryland’s iSchool. It’s really interesting because we were able to look at the #SaveTheChildren campaign, and when you looked at what QAnon was promoting, something like 93 percent of the children were white. 

If you looked at the charity, Save the Children, you were looking at 97 percent who were not white. So it was such a crazy parallel that they stole the hashtag from a charity that had been around for 100 years, that mostly helped children who actually were in danger in the Global South.

And when you look at the trafficking statistics, you’re not looking at white little girls from the suburbs. The women or the young girls who are trafficked tend to be from the Global South—whether it’s Southeast Asia or even Haiti, Latin America, a lot of different places—but these are not white girls with blonde hair and blue eyes. So again, they were building on a trope that had existed for a very long time, since the end of the Civil Bar, called ‘the Black brute’, which was that the person of color is coming to rape the white woman. And this is such an insidious and racist trope that undergirds so much of the QAnon mythology.

Keltner: What’s next for you? What are you working on now? 

Bloom: Well, I finished Veiled Threats, which was the research that I had done on rape in my dissertation, which again, is still, unfortunately, so timely, but I’m not sure what the next one is. I’ve got a few different ideas.

I have to say that part of it is that I was very much inspired, when I went to school at Columbia, by my Professor Robert Jarvis, and what Jarvis did was he reinvented himself every few years. So he never had just one theory that he repackaged like old wine, new bottles, three, four different times.

And, between Chuck Tilly and Bob Jarvis having been influences on me, I like the idea of going into my cocoon and coming out from a chrysalis with some new ideas. And some of these new ideas involve the issue of cyber and how we are creating a generation of echo chambers—of people who never receive information that doesn’t conform to what they already believe and they already think. I’m also working on different things like involuntary celibates, incels, which is a kind of weaponized masculinity.

Unfortunately, there’s just so many things that are posing challenges and a danger to our society that it’s hard to look at all of them, but I’m interested in all of them.

Keltner: My final question turns on a question from the Proust Questionnaire: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? I’m not asking you to answer that question in particular, but given the miserable depths of what you study and consult on, what keeps you together? What keeps you going?

Bloom: I apologize if it’s gonna sound a little Pollyanna, but it’s actually true.

So during the course of my research, I’ve been very fortunate to receive funding from the Minerva Research Initiative—which also means that I’m supposed to tell you I don’t represent the U.S. government and all mistakes are my own—but one of the projects, a small project, the side project that I did was called Documenting the Virtual Caliphate. And what we did was create data for future researchers and scholars. We were taking a daily collection of everything official that ISIS was putting out at the height of ISIS.

We started in 2016 and we went up until about 2019. So, we have a little over three years of daily ISIS propaganda, and a lot of it was in text, but a lot of it also was pictures. I worked with a computer science grad student, and we developed some AI tools to be able to search through the tens of thousands of images to look for a specific thing.

At some point the International Criminal Court asked us, We might decide to charge ISIS with war crimes. Can you figure out a way for the research to pluck out massacres like mass casualty events or genocide? 

And so, we sat around trying to think, How would you tell a computer to look for a massacre? And, my grad student, who is very, very clever said, Tell the computer to look for the color red and people lying down, and it worked.

And so, we were able to provide the U.N., should they decide to move with a case against ISIS for war crimes, a lot of this data, which is now gone—if you don’t have it, if you didn’t collect it at the time, you can’t find it now. And then other people have monetized it, which we researchers can’t afford.

The other thing was, in the course of doing this research, we were able to—again, we were not using our own names in the research; we were, for the IRB, allowed to observe, but not participate—but we were able to see, screenshot, and prevent about twelve different terrorist plots and wow, you know, for all the horrible stuff that I had to look at, the fact that I knew that we had managed to prevent bad things from happening, made it all worthwhile.

So this is where I got to feel like, Okay, it’s really horrible watching all this stuff or going through this material, but we saved a lot of lives.

Keltner: You literally go to bed at night having saved the world!

Bloom: I don’t wanna go that far, not the world. It’s very possible that people were posting and making threats and they were fantasists, but in at least seven of the instances, it led to arrests and prosecutions, so of the twelve, seven were totally legit. And, I have to tell you that, you know, my citation count or books or lectures or whatever it is I’m doing, that’s nice.

But knowing that my research actually helps people and prevented an attack or or saved a life, that meant more to me than anything else.   

Knowing that my research actually helps people and prevented an attack or or saved a life, that meant more to me than anything else.   

Dr. Mia Bloom

Keltner: I’m so happy that you’re writing for The Conversation and writing more public scholarly pieces so that you reach a broader audience.

Bloom: I do try to balance it, and part of it is that I’m a full professor, so I could be like the dudes and rest on my laurels. I don’t need to keep publishing. But part of it has been that we live in very partisan times in which certain things have become political cudgels. And so it’s very important that the average person who’s reading, who isn’t necessarily a Ph.D. and won’t know the jargon associated with gender studies or with communication studies or political science, that they can understand it. The project that we did showed the racism of QAnon.

Then I did a separate op-ed, and then I went on the Joy Reid Show. I think it was really important that her audience and, in general, that people of color realize that this is not how you save the children. And, if all of a sudden now QAnon is trying to recruit Hispanic and people of color—which they are because they’re running for school boards, there’s gonna be a lot of QAnon candidates in 2022—it’s really important that the gaslighting and the not-so-subtle racism of QAnon is known because then I think the more you know, the more you’re inoculated against it.

Read Bloom’s article on Ukrainian women’s independence during the Russian invasion below:

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Stacy Keltner is a first-generation graduate, writer and professor based in Atlanta. Find her on Instagram, TikTok or Twitter.