I have a friend whose boyfriend likes to ruffle my feathers. One day we were having a discussion about rape in the military. My friend’s boyfriend is currently in the navy and swears there is such a thing as ‘lesbian rape gangs’ and that rape in the military is a real problem. I had never heard of such a thing about the military and I was very shocked to hear that within the military there were groups that could form together with the sole purpose of targeting other military personnel and sexually assaulting them.
Not to be fooled by my friend’s boyfriend who can sometimes say sensational things just to get me riled up, I asked my other military friend who is also in the military but in a different branch, the army, if he had ever experienced or heard of a problem of rape in the military. He told me that he had never heard about it before he came to Hawaii, but that in fact that morning he had to go in for a mandatory video on sexual harassment in the military. The video is a documentary called “The Invisible War” by Kirby Dick released last year in 2012.
Curious, I watched the video myself. The sheer numbers of sexual assault occurrences in the military as well as the lack of convicted perpetrators shocked me. The general public should be shocked. “According to a Federal Survey in 2000 during congressional hearings in 1991, witnesses estimated that up to 200,000 women had been sexually assaulted by servicemen.”(Herdy) Sexual violence in the military should be intolerable to all Americans and more people need to become aware of this gross epidemic happening with our servicemen and women so that it can be stopped.
I call this an epidemic in our military because the numbers are staggering. It is estimated that 1 in 5 women in the military are sexually assaulted. (McDonough) A March 26 report by the Institute of Medicine said sexual assault and rape have “been occurring at high rates throughout U.S. armed forces, including the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters.” (Maze) The DOD (Department of Defense) estimated that last year around 19,000 service members are sexually assaulted each year. Thousands of our brave soldiers are being assaulted by their fellow brothers and sisters. The psychological damage of being betrayed by someone you are supposed to trust with your life has to be incredibly scarring.
The military even has a term for those who are suffering from the effects of sexual assault; it is called MST (Military Sexual Trauma). The military has reports done every year, and they have a division SAPRO (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office) that handles policies and training around sexual assault crimes. So why are the numbers so high? “Only a small fraction of the incidents, 3,192 in 2011, are reported, and a mere 10 percent of those cases proceed to trial — hardly enough to create meaningful deterrence to criminal behavior and establish accountability.”(NYT Editorial)
How does the military handle reports of sexual assault? Currently, if you have been a victim of sexual assault you report directly to your commanding officer. He or she then has the power to report the incident or dismiss it outright. If the servicemen feel they have been wronged by their commanding officer for not taking action, the next step is to take it up with their congressman. To me that doesn’t seem a reasonable response to how these types of crimes should be handled.
25% of the victims said they did not report the sexual assault because the person to report to was the rapist and 33% don’t report sexual assault because the commanding officer is a friend of the rapist. (The Invisible War) So all those servicemen have to track down their congressman to see any justice? Also, what makes a commanding officer, who has no legal training and limited training on how to deal with sexual assault crimes qualified to make these executive decisions?
Unless pre-trial decision-making around investigation and prosecution of offenses is also removed from the hands of commanders and given to impartial prosecutors, military criminal justice will remain a lesser form of justice, both for victims and defendants.
The high levels of sexual assault crimes and the small percentage of perpetrators who are convicted have created a culture of sexual assault and rape in the military. There is an underlying ‘rape culture’ where victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them and the attackers are left unpunished. Rape culture is defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” (Marshall University) I find it also important to note that the prevalent rape culture in the military is not limited only to women, but men as well. 1% of males in the military have been sexually assaulted, which equals to about 20,000 men in the military. (The Invisible War) While both men and women can be victims, assaults and sexual harassment “disproportionately affect women” who suffer both physical and mental issues and, in many cases, “have a difficult time readjusting.” (Maze)
Rape culture is prevalent throughout the military. Some high profile cases of military sexual assault include the navy’s Tailhook scandal and the army’s ‘Aberdeen rape ring’. It was at the 1991 convention of the Tailhook Association where navy Lt. Paula Coughlin was “hurtled down a gantlet of groping, poking and pawing officers, who grabbed her breasts and tried to remove her panties.” (Tailhook) More than 26 females had been assaulted in the same fashion at Tailhook, but the navy initially treated the incident as little more than a fraternity party that got out of hand. (Tailhook) The Aberdeen rape ring, where more than 30 women were assaulted, some as young as 17 years of age, where the women were being targeted by unwanted sexual advances by 10 different sergeants. The Aberdeen rape ring was a national news story in 1996, it’s now 2013.
What is currently being done to stop sexual assaults in the military? From what I have read not much; while SAPRO has initiated a campaign to help educate military personnel on sexual misconduct their marketing is extremely offensive and often singles out potential victims as the ones who need to take precautions and not targeting the would be rapists. One slogan the military has been trying to use is the ‘bring a buddy’ system where female servicewomen are encouraged not to walk alone unless they want to get raped. Another is geared toward the men, in which the slogan ‘wait till she’s sober’ is used as a means of discouraging men from having sex with women while they’re intoxicated to prevent accusations of sexual assault later on. Really, is that the best the military can come up with? I’m appalled, and so should you be.
Our military men and women represent our country, our culture and are reflections of ourselves. At one point in time they were just like us and they bravely stepped up to the plate to defend our national values and ideals, courageously laying down their lives, accepting the unimaginable grief their families should suffer if they were to perish, all in the name of liberty and justice for America. They protect us, but who is protecting them? 19,000 cases reported annually is an outrageous number of sexual assaults in the military. Our men and women are being victimized by each other in the most brutal fashion. The military does not have the impartiality necessary to handle crimes committed from one soldier to another. To report any incidents, the victim knows they are taking a risk that instead of persecuting the rapist, they may in turn be the ones who are criminalized for reporting. That is just wrong. Commanding officers understand that if they report sexual assault incidents their leadership capabilities will come into question, and therefore often suppress any reports. The military in general knows that if it gets out that thousands of military servicemen and women are being sexually assaulted each year the public will look unfavorably on the military. This is a cycle of fear that runs to the very top of the military. The only ones who should be overwhelmed with fear are those would be assailants because the punishment should be so severe that it should scare them into not attacking. That is not the case, and for over 20 years the military has been dealing with sexual assaults and rape in the same manner. This is not enough, our soldiers deserve better. The victims deserve better. They deserve justice and the ability to serve their country as needed without fear of persecution and assault from within. We trust our military to take care of us, and we trust them to also take care of each other. My trust is broken. Yours should be too. It is essential that the military step up as one unified against sexual assault and the prevalent rape culture that has seized it from within. They have proven they do not have the impartiality or the concern for those within their ranks. Something must be done and I urge you to contact your local congressman or congresswoman and demand change. If you don’t stand up for those who stand up for you, who will?
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