Military Sexual Assault – It’s the Culture

by on June 5, 2013 · 11 comments

in Military, Veterans

military womanBy Kathleen Gilberd / On Watch

The military is once again in crisis over sexual assaults. In recent weeks, it has become more apparent than ever that the military’s sexual assault policy is a failure, and that sexual assault in the services has become epidemic.

In early May, the Department of Defense (DoD) released new figures showing a significant increase in reported and unreported assaults – DoD estimates that over 26,000 servicemembers were assaulted in 2012, with only 3,374 of these cases reported to the military.

Just as the figures were released, the Air Force was rocked by news that the head of its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program had been arrested for sexual battery. More recently, the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for Ft. Hood was charged with sexual assault and pandering.

On May 12, the Washington Post published an article recounting a number of incidents of sexual misconduct and sexual assault of potential recruits by military recruiters. All of this came not long after two separate cases of officers with court-martial convening authority who, against the advice of their own attorneys, granted clemency to officers convicted of sexual assault at courts-martial.

Meanwhile, at Lackland Air Force Base, the series of courts-martial continue for instructors accused of sexual misconduct with recruits. Most recently, a sergeant on staff at West Point has been accused of secretly videotaping female cadets, sometimes when they were undressed in bathrooms or showers.

Secretary of Defense Hagel and President Obama have expressed outrage at these events and promised to take aggressive action on the issue. Secretary Hagel announced the re-training and re-certification of all Sexual Assault Prevention and Response providers and all recruiters, and promised to cooperate with Congress in developing legislation to address the issue.

But DoD has not made serious efforts to identify and root out the fundamental causes of this long-standing sexual assault epidemic. The response to this and previous scandals has been to call for more training, revise regulations, establish panels to evaluate the problem, and call for yet more training. Defense personnel and other analysts stress that the problem is caused by a small number of rogue soldiers among large numbers of decent and law-abiding servicemembers and, recently, that soldiers bring coarse attitudes about sex and sexual assault into the military from the civilian world.

But those who know the military first hand see, from their own service or from providing legal assistance to servicemembers, that much of the cause of the sexual assault epidemic lies in the military’s own culture – a culture that contains strong elements of sexism and tolerates sexual harassment and discrimination, giving tacit acceptance to sexual violence. Despite significant increases in the number of women in the military, it remains a strongly misogynist institution.

Starting in boot camp, young soldiers are taught combat skills and military discipline with the use of violent and dehumanizing sexual imagery. In language too graphic for this statement, they are told to equate prowess in combat with sexual prowess, and manliness with sexual conquest. The use of sexism and sexual violence as a training mechanism has proven effective in a period where patriotism and ideas of national self-defense cannot be counted on to motivate soldiers to fight. This sexist indoctrination is reinforced in training and discipline, rituals and social life, throughout members’ service, creating a masculinized camaraderie with great tolerance for – even appreciation of – sexual harassment.

The DoD’s recently released report on sexual assault mentions this male-dominated culture as an issue in sexual assault, but the idea is buried in the text and not pursued. Instead, the report emphasizes the need for training, command accountability, effective use of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program – and more training.

Another aspect of military culture – retaliation against whistleblowers and troublemakers – affects reporting of sexual assaults. According to DoD’s own surveys, nearly half of those assaulted who did not report the offense thought they would be labeled a troublemaker for doing so.

And the anecdotal experience of military attorneys and counselors shows this to be the case, as women (and men) who report assaults often find themselves the victims of command reprisals ranging from unwanted psychiatric evaluations to involuntary discharges for alleged misconduct or minor psychological problems. (Slightly more than half of those surveyed were afraid they would not be believed, and a large number feared that they would have no confidentiality if they reported.) When commands ignore complaints or retaliate against complainants, they send an implicit message that sexual harassment and assault will be tolerated.

Until these cultural factors are addressed, DoD’s well-intentioned training and regulation changes can make little difference. An increased emphasis on prosecution of assaulters, changes in the court-martial system, and more training may be helpful, and may empower some survivors of sexual assault to report the crimes. But if the military does not address the basic sexism of its training and culture, these changes will do little good. Commands will continue to sidestep regulations and ignore reports, rapists will continue to think that their behavior is quietly acceptable, and the epidemic of sexual assault will continue.

On Watch is the Newsletter of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar mjt June 5, 2013 at 12:18 pm

segregate the sexes. in school and in the military.
men being enslaved by their carnal desires are at a disadvantage.

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avatar John June 5, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I couldn’t agree more. As someone who served in the “Old Navy” on an actively deployed aircraft carrier, working on the flight deck, I see the descriptions of shipboard life today and can only imagine what a tangled mess it is that goes on out there today.
However towards the situations this article speaks about I’m sure the services where the individuals are described now as “Warfighters” (which I don’t consider my occupation was, I fixed planes) must be rife with predatory types.
“God Bless” (stated as an agnostic/atheist) those men we recruit who for our freedom can be convinced it is vital for them to march in front of a row of cannons and spill their blood for the red white and blue- but if their logic is so ruled by primal urges I can only imagine what goes through their heads when an attractive young female and they are alone in a remote location.
One must look at the ugly reality of it- we are but animals, albeit the most evolved, and the mating rituals of most mammals does uncannily resemble rape. I guess we’ve evolved to the point where we have the ability to lie to ourselves about all that. Maybe the difference between the human animal and other species is most of us can control those urges, and those who cannot rightfully get long prison sentences.

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avatar dak June 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm

So mjt thinks its male on female only? Interesting. Think again. A lot of it is male on male also. That is the reality and the military needs to address this.

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avatar Goatskull June 5, 2013 at 5:40 pm

I don’t know how it is now, but I remember when I was stationed onboard the USS Mckee in the mid 90’s had an interesting sexual assault program that unfortunately put many crew members in a lose lose situation. If anyone witnessed sexual assault they were to immediately report it. If anyone was a victim of sexual assault then of course report it. If it later comes up that a sexual assault was not reported when it should have been, then disciplinary action would be taken, including action against the sexual assault victim who didn’t report it due to fear of back lash. If someone DID report it but the perpetrators were determined not to have committed it, then there would be a courts martial against the accuser. The reason for that was because we DID in fact have a couple instances where someone was falsely accused of sexual assault. One women admitted doing that to get back at her work center supervisor for not approving her to take leave for a particular period. Truth is the policy was very over zealous. Our XO who implemented this policy admitted there were flaws that would potentially ruin the careers and lives of innocent people but held the opinion that this was the best way to combat sexual assault. He was in idiot.

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avatar cahlo June 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm

I don’t have the answers, just some observations: the young men and women in the military are at their peak hormone levels. Should anyone be surprised? No. Assault is absolutely wrong. these young people are away from home, getting drunk in a lot of cases, have extremely tough jobs, and some of them let off steam (or explode), and it ends up like this. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea to have so many women in the military………….

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avatar Goatskull June 5, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Hormones is one thing. Sexual violence is a whole different issue. By your logic, men and women lets say under 25 shouldn’t work together anywhere.

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avatar John June 6, 2013 at 2:06 am

It’s a different issue for the majority of civilized men. Some have a harder time making such a distinction, when their hormones get active they may be just a hair away from sexual violence. As I was trying to allude in my above post I think that the type of individuals the military targets for recruitment to eventual combat duty are probably more prone to be that kind of thug- and may even enhance those kinds of primal urges in them when training and conditioning them to be killers on the battlefield.
Just imagine a walk through a state penitentiary, those kind of guys you wouldn’t want your daughter to date. They’re psychos.
They would also make a pretty good team of guys to gather up and go kill people if you could keep them in line, right?
That’s part of the problem but I think another seems to be the military’s bizarre institutional mentality which you rightfully touched upon above, but they also have fostered an atmosphere of coverups- as well as that chain of command and leadership structure that isn’t so clear in the civilian world.
I’m sure you remember how it was in “A” school when you were an E-1 or E-2 and a 3rd class PO had a power trip for the first time in their life. Imagine the subordinate is a woman and the Petty Officer is a man. This reverses the roles of young men almost begging women for sexual favors- so many ways for this to get ugly- and what if the subordinate dangles them before him for easier duty assignments?

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avatar Goatskull June 6, 2013 at 9:33 am

Sexual assault and sexual harassment are two different things. Not that sexual harassment is acceptable in any way shape or form but this article is specifically about assault as in rape.

“As I was trying to allude in my above post I think that the type of individuals the military targets for recruitment to eventual combat duty are probably more prone to be that kind of thug- and may even enhance those kinds of primal urges in them when training and conditioning them to be killers on the battlefield.”

I know this from my own experience as a Navy vet. Most people in the Navy (outside of special force units) are not trained in combat and even in war time most are not involved in actually shooting and killing and never see it. Onboard ship most would be involved in damage control like fire fighting, shoring, hole patching, first aid, etc if the ship itself gets attacked. At the most the only weapons training we had was for shipboard security and watch standing and in all reality that was nothing more than an afterthought collateral duty. Bottom line is most Sailors are not trained killers. I’m just assuming here but I figure the Air Force is much the same way.
In the Army and even more so the Marines where everybody at a minimum is trained in ground combat no matter what the occupational specialty is, I still think in the year 2013 there is no valid excuse for sexual assault, or harassment for that matter. The culture someone was brought up in and being a trained killer is not a valid reason. There are thousands of combat veterans out there who have never committed sexual assault on or off duty. All that being said I don’t have an answer as to how to put a stop to it. Perhaps more service members in a position of leadership will need to be willing to do the right thing even if it puts a damaging crush on their careers and livelihoods. Sad but that may be what needs to happen.

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avatar cahlo June 6, 2013 at 5:47 am

my guess is that if there were no hormones, most of this would go away. so, do you have a guess as to why this is so prevalent in the military, as opposed to civ-land? or is it just more publicized? for society to think it wouldn’t happen in the military is just wrong…

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avatar Goatskull June 6, 2013 at 7:45 am

It’s pretty prevalent on college campuses too. I don’t think anyone with a beating pulse thinks it doesn’t happen in the military. I’m quite sure it’s just as prevalent in “civ-land” also. If there is a disproportionally higher percentage of it in the military it’s probably because leadership is incompetent in dealing with it (something people in that position who’ve since retired will be the first to tell you, at least amongst many I’ve known). Another reason is that is that (as I stated above) if a victim comes forth and reports it, and presses charges but the accused is deemed not guilty/innocent (whether it’s right or wrong) than the accuser now faces criminal charges of their own. Also as I mentioned above there have been cases where people were actually falsely accused so the end result is that it is a crap shoot for someone who is an actual victim. All around a lose lose situation.

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avatar Joseph June 6, 2013 at 9:23 pm

I disagree with you and I agree with you.

Firstly, to prescribe the policy as a “failure” and sexual assault as an “epidemic” are by far improper and extreme assessments of the military culture. I think the policy is flawed or incomplete, and it is an dreadful occurance that happens more than it should, which is not at all.

Second, you say “But DoD has not made serious efforts to identify and root out the fundamental causes of this long-standing sexual assault epidemic… Defense personnel and other analysts stress that the problem is caused by a small number of rogue soldiers among large numbers of decent and law-abiding servicemembers and, recently, that soldiers bring coarse attitudes about sex and sexual assault into the military from the civilian world.

But those who know the military first hand see, from their own service or from providing legal assistance to servicemembers, that much of the cause of the sexual assault epidemic lies in the military’s own culture…”

We are not Spartans, we are Americans with a voluntary military enlistment, and as a result it means that those CIVILIANS that become SERVICE MEMBERS diversely represent the greater American society and culture. And yes I do believe that people bring many of those perspectives and attitudes in regards to sexual assault with them. People do not join the military and all of the sudden believe that Rape is ok. That is nowhere in any US military curriculum. That is not to say that such a case does not exist, but it is not a widespread “epidemic”.

As a first hand service member, I do not see what you are saying, and I am a very strong advocate for the prevention of sexual assault. It is an issue that strikes very close to home. I do not agree that it is military culture whatsoever. I have in fact learned more about sexual assault and harassment since I joined the military than I ever did as a Civilian. Many of my previous notions were brought under great consideration.

Now, for where I agree with you.

You say “The response to this and previous scandals has been to call for more training, revise regulations, establish panels to evaluate the problem, and call for yet more training…

Until these cultural factors are addressed, DoD’s well-intentioned training and regulation changes can make little difference. An increased emphasis on prosecution of assaulters, changes in the court-martial system, and more training may be helpful, and may empower some survivors of sexual assault to report the crimes. But if the military does not address the basic sexism of its training and culture, these changes will do little good. Commands will continue to sidestep regulations and ignore reports, rapists will continue to think that their behavior is quietly acceptable, and the epidemic of sexual assault will continue.”

That is on point. The military cannot change the greater American social culture (because yeah, rape and sexual assault still happen in the Civilian world too), but it can change the culture inside of its own confines.

and I don’t think that “change” is really the right word either. The culture, the values, and attitudes regarding sexual assault need to be impacted.

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