Silent Shame: The Epidemic of Sexual Assault in the Military and What to Do About It

In the year 2014, America has made great strides towards gender and sexual equality. With the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2010, gay and lesbian soldiers could serve openly in the military for the first time. No longer were they forced to hide their identities to placate those who would deny them opportunities or wish them harm. At the same time, women have been given greater opportunities to serve in the military in all capacities, strengthening our armed forces in a time of great need.

On paper, it would seem that progressive sensibilities are now driving America to a better future. However, even as the United States moves closer and closer to true and perfect equality, a dark specter looms on the horizon. As women have joined the military in greater numbers, so too have sexual assault rates risen, as these newly enlisted G.I. Janes find themselves brutally abused by their comrades and commanding officers. While a number of sexual assault cases have captivated the media in recent years, the government has so far failed to take decisive action on solving the issue. In order to better understand the scope of this problem, we need to probe the issue of military sexual assault holistically; discover why it happens, how prevalent it is, and what we can do to stop it. America’s soldiers deserve no less than to be allowed to serve in an environment that welcomes and protects them instead of making them feel vulnerable and undefended.

It is clear that sexual assault in the military is a vast and deep-rooted problem. According to statistics from the Department of Defense, anywhere from 19,000 to 26,000 sexual assaults occur in the armed forces every year. Despite these staggering numbers, only a relative handful of these assaults are prosecuted: only about 1,100 per year are investigated and less than 600 are processed by the military justice system. Even worse, less than one hundred cases of sexual assault per year result in court-martials. The recent overseas deployments of soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have only made the problem worse.

According to reports from VA hospitals across the U.S., a full 15 percent of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have shown signs of sexual assault and trauma. The problem isn’t limited to female soldiers either, as roughly one to two percent of enlisted military personnel have also been the victims of homosexual assault. Furthermore, there are a startling number of cases in which women will assist men in sexual assaults against other female soldiers. All of this adds up to a serious problem in America’s military and one of the fastest-growing dangers to the well-being of our troops.

It gets worse: sexual assault is endemic at American military academies. The United States Air Force Academy , the United States Military Academy at West Point, and the United States Naval Academy all have reported increasing rates of sexual assault against women cadets in the past decade. While some of this is attributed to female cadets’ greater willingness to report sexual assault, these numbers are still worrying. Indeed, studies have shown that servicewomen are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by one of their comrades than actually killed in battle. The 2003 scandal that enveloped the Air Force Academy is perhaps the most famous military academy assault scandal in recent history.

A substantial percentage of female graduates of that academy reported that they were the victims of assault during their time there. While the victims had attempted to bring this problem to the attention of the Academy’s leadership, their requests were repeatedly ignored; it was only until after the assaults were brought to the attention of the federal government that any action was taken. Worse, as most of the attackers had already graduated from the academy, there was not enough evidence to bring them to court-martial. While the scandal resulted in new leadership at the Academy and an improved system for reporting and discouraging sexual assault, it is disappointing that it took involvement from the government to get to that point.

Furthermore, the problem of sexual assault against servicemen cannot be ignored. As mentioned earlier, as much as two percent of enlisted servicemen have been the victims of sexual assault from other men. Research has shown that sexual assault has more lasting and damaging psychological effects on men then women, as the existing trauma of having their bodies forcibly violated is compounded with questions of sexual orientation.

Even before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, soldiers who were believed to be homosexual were sometimes targeted for sexual assault, while heterosexual soldiers have also been attacked in a homosexual manner. A survey of male sexual assault victims in the military showed that homosexual victims had a tendency to believe that their violation was a punishment for their sexual orientation, while heterosexual victims report severe confusion about their sexual orientation.

The problem of sexual assault in the military goes beyond the mere problems caused by assault itself. Compounded with the strains that soldiers ordinarily suffer, sexual assault can open up a new can of mental and psychological issues. Sexual assault has been shown to be a prime contributor to post-traumatic stress disorder, making the already stressful life of servicemen even worse. In extreme cases, particularly in men, sexual assault can drive soldiers to suicide, the rates of which have been skyrocketing among veterans and servicemen.

Despite the serious risk that sexual assault poses to the well-being of our country’s servicemen, few if any higher-ups in the military seem to want to tackle the problem. In a lawsuit filed against the Pentagon, female combat veterans revealed that unit commanders were often reluctant to help prosecute accused rapists, and in many cases the victims were forced to continue to work alongside their attackers even after reporting their assaults. The lawsuit alleged that the “good ol’ boy” mentality that still pervades the U.S. military was a major contributor to the prevalence of sexual assault, the reluctance of soldiers to report assaults, and the reluctance of prosecutors to punish alleged rapists.

A number of reasons have been put forth for the increasing rate of sexual assault in America’s military. While the most common explanation is the increasing numbers of females enlisting in the armed forces, this on its own is insufficient to explain the astronomical rates of assault, especially given that other nations such as Israel have had full gender equality in their militaries for decades and have far lower assault rates. Additionally, sexual assault rates for the general U.S. population have been on the decline for some time; it is only in the military that they continue to climb. Some commentators have also attempted to blame access to pornography for the increasing rates; this is also insufficient given that porn usage is roughly the same in the general U.S. population as well.

A more holistic explanation is that the current state of the military is to blame for the rising rates of assault against both male and female soldiers. The U.S. military has been in the crosshairs for the past decade due to a number of scandals involving murder and humiliation of insurgents and civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Abu Ghraib scandal, for example, in which prisoners were sexually humiliated by U.S. Army soldiers, is a prime example. The Haditha massacre in 2005, in which a Marine patrol massacred unarmed Iraqi civilians, is another example. The extreme torture techniques such as waterboarding that guards at camps such as Guantanamo Bay are expected to use on prisoners is yet another example.

The specific way the U.S. military is being deployed in the modern era, the specific wars this nation is fighting seem to be having a deleterious effect on the well-being of our soldiers. Having to fight conflicts with unclear goals (the confusion over the reasons for invading Iraq is well-known) as well as engage in counter-insurgent warfare is wrecking the self-confidence of American servicemen. The increasing rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and sexual assault among military servicemen and veterans are all likely related.

So what can be done about this issue? To credit President Obama, his administration has been taking sexual assault in the military far more seriously than the Bush administration did. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has recently stepped up to hold the military’s leadership accountable for failing to prosecute cases of sexual assault (Kirkwood, 2014). This is a vital first step. A big contributing factor to the lack of prosecutions for military sexual assault cases are due to commanding officers either refusing to cooperate with investigators or encouraging victims to not cooperate. This has to end immediately. Officers who impede sexual assault investigations should be prosecuted themselves and a new code of operations needs to be implemented to deal with the epidemic of sexual assault. Additionally, outreach services need to be targeted at the most vulnerable victims of sexual assault: females and gay men. Because these groups are both historically disadvantaged and were discouraged from enlisting in the military until recently, they are at high risk for sexual assault and being pressured by their commanding officers to keep their violation a secret. A new culture of openness needs to be implemented in the U.S. military, by force if necessary. It is an absolute disgrace that this issue has been ignored by both the military’s leadership and the government for so long.

Sexual assault is a problem that is deeply entrenched within the modern U.S. military. Whether its soldiers feeling entitled to their female comrades or commanding officers dismissing such incidents as “boys being boys,” the sexual assault epidemic in our military is a moral failure at every level. In an increasingly progressive America, this problem can no longer be tolerated or swept under the rug. The military needs to reform itself to make women and other potential victims of sexual assault feel more welcome, as well as provide more resources to those already victimized. Only when the issue of sexual assault in the military is treated as a true national crisis will we be able to solve it.

References

Campbell, C; Raja, S. (2005). The sexual assault and secondary victimization of female veterans: help-seeking experiences with military and civilian social systems. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29(1), pp. 97-106. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2005.00171.x

Cox, AM. (2013, Jun. 13). The real roots of the US military’s epidemic of sexual assaults. The Guardian.

Kang, H; Dalager, N; Mahan, C; Ishii, E. (2005). The role of sexual assault on the risk of PTSD among Gulf War veterans. Annals of Epidemiology, 15(3), pp. 191-195.

Kirkwood, L. (2014, Apr. 21.) Leadership ‘accountable’ on military sexual assault, Hagel says.

Parker, A. (2011, Feb. 15). Lawsuit says military is rife with sexual abuse. The New York Times.

Schemo, DK. (2003, Aug. 23). Rate of rape at Academy is put at 12% in survey. The New York Times.

Turchik, JA; Wilson, SM (2010). Sexual assault in the U.S. military: a review of the literature and recommendations for the future. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(4), pp. 267- 277.

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