By 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 service members 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 recertification 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 service members 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 comradery 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.