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The Catch 22 of Ending Sexual Violence in the US Military

At its root, the problem of sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military is the quintessential Catch 22.  As witnesses, Senators, and even representatives of the military admitted at a Senate hearing on the problem last week, the shocking amount of sexual violence that is going on in our military is being done by perpetrators who use it to assert dominance and power over those they perceive to be weaker as a way of telling them who is in control.  Which is also precisely what dominant military forces do and have done since the beginning of patriarchal time with whatever weaponry has been available to them.  And that is  why it is so difficult, if not impossible to get traction in eradicating sexual violence in the military.  To do so would necessitate confronting the very ethos of militarism.Military sexual assault victims testify before Congress. (Image: kmov.com)

The impact of sexual assault against women in the military has been and continues to be horrific.  A notable point that was made at the hearings last week however, and one which is  crucial to understand is that men actually make up the majority of victims of sexual assault and rape in the military.  Given that men make up approximately 85% of our armed forces, that isn’t surprising although women are victimized at a much higher rate:

Of the estimated 19,000 reported sexual assaults and rapes in the armed forces last year, the majority were actually committed against men.
Men are assaulted at a lower rate — 1% of servicemen reported being attacked by a comrade last year versus 4.4% of women — but that still translates to more than 10,000 cases compared with 9,000 attacks on female recruits and officers.

And as The Daily Beast pointed out in 2011,

Last year  (2010) nearly 50,000 male veterans screened positive for “military sexual trauma” at the Department of Veterans Affairs, up from just over 30,000 in 2003. For the victims, the experience is a special kind of hell—a soldier can’t just quit his job to get away from his abusers. But now, as the Pentagon has begun to acknowledge the rampant problem of sexual violence for both genders, men are coming forward in unprecedented numbers, telling their stories and hoping that speaking up will help them, and others, put their lives back together.

When Brian K. Lewis testified at the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing last week, he became the first male victim of sexual abuse  to testify before Congress.  But the problem is hardly a new one and has likely existed as long as there have been military forces.  In recent years as hearing after hearing has been held regarding sexual assault against women in the armed forces, the problem of assaults against men has indeed been known, but has not garnered much national attention.  In 2003, Florida Today published as report that indicated that the military was well aware of how widespread the problem is,

Florida Today obtained the VA’s preliminary findings from its sexual trauma survey of 1.67 million veterans enrolled in 1,300 VA health care facilities across the country. It examined VA records and interviewed government and private psychologists across the United States. And it used the Freedom of Information Act to seek reports and prosecution information from the military. It found: Thousands of victims. Nearly 22,500 male veterans — more than one of every 100 former soldiers, sailors and airmen treated by the VA — reported being sexually “traumatized” by peers or superiors during their military careers, VA survey records show. That includes 769 men in the VA’s Central Florida Health Care System, which includes Brevard County, Orlando and the Tampa Bay area. Most men who answer, “yes,” to sexual trauma are being treated for other ailments by the VA, and only a small fraction are being treated exclusively for their military sexual abuse…

…Domination the prime motive. Veterans Affairs psychologists who are treating sexually assaulted vets described most male victims as the youngest, lowest-ranking enlistees in the military, and the sexual assaults were carried out to humiliate or demean the victims. Such attacks are not homosexual acts, but efforts to assert power over others, the VA psychologists stressed. These nationwide counselors interviewed by Florida Today said most of the VA’s treatment cases involved physical abuse, not insults or harassment. “It’s pretty clear that we’re discussing unwanted sexual activity that’s coercive in nature,” said Art Rosenblatt, coordinator of the VA’s military sexual trauma program in Central Florida…

…Among the men being treated by the VA, sexual trauma victims have described officers or older enlisted men gang raping recruits, soldiers sodomizing victims with gunbarrels and forcing young enlistees to perform oral sex.

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In her opening testimony at last week’s hearing, Senator Barbara Boxer pointed out that we need to see sexual violence as the vicious crime that it is, not as a problem of disrespect.  Unfortunately, as the representatives of the various branches of the military testified, while they acknowledge that sexual assault and harassment is happening, the armed forces are still doggedly refusing to make the substantive changes in how these crimes are reported and prosecuted and how victims and perpetrators are treated, that would begin to realistically address the problem. Instead they point to support programs that lack the empowerment to take action and point to posters that say, “Ask Her When She’s Sober” as actions they are taking to respond to the situation.  It seems all but impossible for them to address the issue without framing it in the context of maintaining order, discipline and chain of command.  Time and again victims talk about having to continue to serve with their assailants, with being denied medical care and timely due process.

Former Sergeant Rebekah Havrilla spoke also in her testimony of the constant atmosphere of sexual harassment and intimidation including hearing from a chaplain that rape was God’s will.  Havrilla also described how efforts to educate about sexual violence were not taken seriously,

We had a sexual assault and harassment training that we went through and one of our sergeants got up on the table and stripped completely naked and danced and laughed at it.  That’s the kind of culture I lived in on a daily basis.

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One of the key problems is that sexual assaults and rapes must be reported up the chain of command.  All too often, it is those higher ups that are perpetrating the assaults and in other ways have a vested interest in making charges and evidence disappear  because crimes in their units would look bad on their records.  They are far more likely to force the victim out of the service without benefits or medical care than to force out or charge the perpetrator.

In The Invisible War, a recently released documentary about sexual violence in the military, we learn that a Navy study found that 15% of incoming recruits have attempted or committed sexual assault before entering the military (twice the percentage of the civilian population), yet they are not denied entry into the military.  And as those interviewed in the film point out, when these crimes aren’t prosecuted in the military, the perpetrators are free to continue assaulting others both inside and out of the military.

As Representative Jackie Speier recently pointed out, one of the problems is that the military justice system serves the assailants far better than it serves the victims.  Kirby Dick, producer of the deservedly acclaimed The Invisible War, which minces no words in documenting the atrocities that are taking place, calls the problem structural.

And that is indeed so and why addressing the problem is a real Catch 22.  As Senator Lindsey Graham pointed out at last week’s hearing, the military is not a democracy.  Graham was making the deeply offensive point that this was why victims could not expect the kind of justice they would get in the civilian world.  But there is and always has been the horrible irony that the body that is supposed to defend a democratic way of life is essentially a totalitarian, top-down system that perpetrates the same kind of power over violence that is at the heart of sexual violence.

In the hearing numerous references were made to our being at war.  But let’s remember, it is a war that we started and continue to wage although the definition of what we are fighting against is far from clear and hard questions have to be asked about whose purpose it serves.  Clearly it is a drain on our resources, has done catastrophic damage to other countries and has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.  There is little to demonstrate that it makes us safer and seems far more likely to simply foment more danger for the entire world.

And in the meantime, each year, tens of thousands of our own troops are harmed by their fellow soldiers.  And the awful truth is that violence cannot be stopped in a system that is predicated on precisely the same kind of justification of dominator violence.  Until we confront that, the atrocities that members of our military are committing against each other will continue.

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