An Old Enemy In A New Outfit: Sexual Assault In The US Military

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Recent allegations of women being discharged from the military with a psychiatric diagnosis after reporting a sexual assault have some asking questions.

Women in the Military

Photo: Wacs62

Women in the military seem to be facing the same types of victim blaming that all women face when it comes to reporting sexual assault.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month so I wanted to take a moment to discuss an issue that has been in the main stream media lately, but at the same time continues to get brushed under the rug: Sexual Assault in the Military.

Rates of Sexual Assault in the US Military

Current research indicates that 25-38% of women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime (Tjaden, & Thoennes, 2006). We also know that this risk is not evenly distributed as college women are at an increased risk for being sexually assaulted compared the general population (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000). Women in the military are also at increased risk for experiencing sexual assault (Brubaker, 2009).  In 2010, there were 3,158 reports of sexual assault in the military. However, according to the Department of Defense (DOD), this number only reflects about 13.5% of the actual sexual assaults that took place in the military, in 2010. The DOD projects the actual number at around 19,000. In fact, the Pentagon stated in February that there has been a 64% increase in violent sexual assaults since 2006. These numbers are astounding!

Women are paying the price…literally

Sexual assault is a highly under reported crime; this has been documented time and time again. Yet, in the military, reporting a sexual assault poses specific challenges. Sometimes women have to report a superior who has assaulted them, sometimes women have to report someone in their unit who has assaulted them, sometimes women have to report a friend who has assaulted them, but above all, when reporting an assault in the military, women have to report someone who they are supposed to be able to trust, who is supposed to be on their team, and who is supposed to look out for them. After all, isn’t trust part of the military’s mantra?

According to David Martin in a CNN article, posted this past weekend titled: Rape victims say military labels them ‘crazy’, there is a pattern of behavior observed across all branches of the military in which women who report a sexual assault are then diagnosed with a personality or adjustment disorder and generally discharged from the military. This diagnosis often results in these women being forced to forfeit their education benefits under the GI Bill and sometimes their health insurance. This does not necessarily occur in all cases of allegations of sexual assault, but as Martin points out, there seems to be a definite pattern emerging and it stretches across all branches in the military.

In response to the current rates of sexual assault in the military, Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and the executive director for the Service Women’s Action Network stated, “this latest report [referring to the 3,000 plus women who reported sexual assault] clearly shows that the military’s response to rape and sexual assault within its own ranks has been both inadequate and ineffective.” As Martin points out, the military just wants to make these women and their allegations go away. Instead of taking time to address the problem within the military, steps are taken to remove the women and thus the “problem” as women’s allegations are often conceptualized as the issue as opposed to the perpetrator’s behavior.

And women are paying the price—literally. Not only are the women removed from service (meaning they lose their job), they also often lose the education benefits promised to them (college tuition) and sometimes their health insurance. Additionally, in some cases, women who reported sexual assault also ended up having to pay the military. For example, Anna Moore, who was “alone in her barracks in October, 2002 when a non-commissioned officer from another battery tried to rape her,” reported the incident to her sergeant who tore up the paper work on the report and told her to “forget the incident as if it never happened.” After being discharged from the military and losing her education benefits she is now forced to pay back a $2,800 bonus she received for signing up for six years. With interest and penalties, Moore owes the military $6,000.

Now what did they expect?

Much like women in the civilian world, women who have been sexually assaulted in the military are doubted and accused of making false reports, harassed, and called names like “slut” and “whore.” The difference between civilian and military women seems to be that military women are also chased out of their professions (this can and has happened in the civilian world too) and, as a result, lose benefits to which they were guaranteed upon enlisting. What happens to the perpetrators? That seems a bit unclear—they may be discharged too, but according to Martin, they are often transferred or may experience no repercussions.

Earlier this year in a news conference Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, stated that sexual assault in the military was not going to be tolerated, announcing that military members who report a sexual assault would be allowed to make an immediate request to transfer to a different unit and the commanding officer would have 72 hours to decide whether to grant the request or not. Some of the victims who have been discharged from the military and given a mental health diagnosis rendering them unable to get the benefits to which they were entitled, think this is just lip service and that nothing will really change. My question is—how can we expect change to occur when we live in a rape supportive culture that promotes blaming the victim instead of holding the perpetrator accountable? For example, in February Liz Trotta, Fox News contributor, justified sexual assault in the military and said “Now what did they expect?” citing the fact that sexual assault occurs because women and men in the military are in close quarters, thus blaming feminists for advocating, for women, the right to serve in the military. Well, Ms. Trotta, in my opinion, I except the men in the military not to rape the women in the military (or anyone else for that matter). Does that seem like it is too much to ask?

Panetta and the Department of Defense seem to think education may help. According to Trotta, “The Department of Defense’s budget for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office leapt from $5 million in 2005 to more than $23 million in fiscal 2010…Total Department of Defense spending on sexual assault prevention related efforts now exceeds $113 million annually.”  Trotta criticizes this spending in the following statement: “So, you have this whole bureaucracy upon bureaucracy being built up with all kinds of levels of people to support women in the military who are now being raped too much.

Did she really just say that?

I have so many problems with this statement I don’t know where to begin. First of all what does being rapped “too much” even mean? Any person who has been sexually victimized (and even many who have never experienced their own personal sexual victimization, but can empathize with victims) will state even one time is “too much.” So the fact that thousands of women are experiencing sexual assault in the military is certainly a pervasive issue that needs to be addressed. Secondly, why shouldn’t we be supporting women who are being victimized? And finally—why is it okay for people, whether they are in or out of the military, to sexually assault someone, ever? The answer is, IT IS NOT OKAY. But instead of blaming those who are committing the sexual assaults for all the military spending on sexual assault prevention, Ms. Trotta blames feminists…because feminists want to support women who are being victimized. My response—if there were not people raping our military women and others turning a blind eye, there would be no need to “waste” all this money on education and prevention; if people would simply treat our military women (and all women and men) with respect and decency, there would no need to spend $23 million helping teach men not to rape. The problem is—our women are getting raped and some military personnel are participating in the victimization either via doing the raping or ignoring it and allowing it to go on.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of Ms. Trotta’s rant is that this type of discourse is not uncommon and it is not targeted only at women in the military; all women face this same kind of victim blaming. However, I will admit the egregious attempts to blame victims of sexual assault for spending millions of dollars on sexual assault prevention and the diagnosing of women with pre-existing medical conditions to kick them out of military service is some of the most horrific victim blaming I have ever seen.

An Old Enemy in a New Outfit

Women have been blamed for “causing” their assault for years, this is not new. People have justified rape in situations where a woman was dressed attractively, flirted with a man, even engaged in kissing or sexual touching…and now, according to Ms. Trotta, women are at fault for their own rape because they wanted to serve in the military. At no time, through any of these actions, did a woman ask to be sexually assaulted. Yet rather than blame the person who committed the assault, we blame the victim. And the situations of sexual assault in the military, where women are allegedly being discharged and diagnosed with a mental illness, seems (as Lisa Jervis writes in Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape) like an old enemy in a new outfit. That is, victim blaming is that old enemy waving his ugly hand, wrapped up in a military uniform outfit. We have the same old victim blaming discourse being applied to another set of women–the women who have agreed to protect and serve our country. Where is our loyalty and commitment to protect and serve them?

Kristen Jozkowski, Ph.D.

received her Ph.D. in Health Behavior from the Department of Applied Health Science at Indiana University in May, 2011, and now teaches at University of Arkansas! (yes, there is life after college). Kristen's research focuses on sexual communication and consent, desire and pleasure, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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