Friday May 3, 2013

In 2003, a study appeared in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine on women's risk of rape in the U.S. military. According to this study, of women seeking healthcare through the VA from the period of the Vietnam War thru the first Gulf War, nearly 1 in 3 of them were raped while serving -- double that of the general population. Today, the statistics remain the same; infact, according to a 2012 Army Report on the health of service men and women, there has been a 64 percent increase in sexual violence against women since 2006. And although men also experience what the military calls "Military Sexual Trauma (MST)" -- a term that encompasses everything from sexual harassment to rape -- it is women that are disproportionately affected. Females represent only 14 percent of the active Armed Forces yet compose 95 percent of all sex crime victims. Furthermore, perpetrators of all sexual violence (against men and women) are overwhelmingly male.

Many women within the military have said that the trauma they experience from the military's response (or total lack thereof) after the assault can be worse than the assault itself. The military institution operates strictly on a rigid hierarchy and chain of command practice -- what this means for victims of sexual violence is that often the person they have to report to about the rape is the rapist or a friend of the rapist. In addition, women are often not believed, allegations are ignored, many are ostracized within their unit, and in many cases, when they do speak out they are punished themselves. In one example, a woman reported that she was raped by a fellow Coast Guard member, given no medical attention, made to continue working with her rapist and ultimately dismissed from the Coast Guard as "unfit for duty." Also, a distinct overall pattern has emerged around these assaults -- often, older and sometimes senior-ranking men rape younger, lower-ranking women illustrating the power motive within rape. The military's problematic response also explains why many women don't report. According to the Department of Defense, less than 14 percent of survivors report an assault and 92 percent perpetrators never come before a military court.

Military ideology fiercely promotes the idea of "brothers and sisters in arms" -- fellow soldiers protecting each other through shared experience. When this is broken by sexual violence amongst fellow soldiers the trauma is intensified. This betrayal from within the ranks of the military can shatter these women's lives. For women soldiers, the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is from sexual violence. It has been reported that survivors of military sexual violence experience a higher rate of PTSD than those that have combat trauma. Women often spiral into substance abuse, depression, and homelessness. Both men and women who have been sexually assaulted while in the military represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless population -- and the rate of women veterans that are homeless is particularly on the rise, with African American women being especially affected.

So what is to be done? A spotlight has been on this issue in the recent years and efforts are being put forth to more effectively deal with the epidemic in terms of legislative action and procedural changes around reporting and prosecution. However, those changes will not eradicate the crimes from happening in the first place. Sexual violence will not stop until work is done at the root of the issue: We must ask what is producing the rapes in the first place and what is it about the structure of the military institution that provides a breeding ground for this type of violence?

The U.S. military places high value on power, dominance, unlimited authority and subordination of others. The combination of power and control, rigid hierarchy, male privilege and rampant misogyny is a recipe for rape culture. Add to this, the historic practice of rape being used as a tool by which to terrorize and control the "enemy," in times of war. Is it any wonder that the same tactics are replicated within the internal structure of the armed forces?

In 2008, Helen Benedict, a Columbia professor and journalist, wrote one of the most eye-opening accounts of sexual violence of women soldiers in her book, "The Lonely Soldier: the Private War of Women Serving in Iraq." In it she reports that she felt herself in a "time warp" as she listened to women soldiers' accounts of training and active duty in war. "So pervasive was woman hating in military culture, from boot camp though active duty, with obscene comments on breast size, relentless staring and ridicule, sexist rhymes, and pornography everywhere, including in latrines and common areas," that she characterized it as "sexual persecution."

These young women stand perched on willingness to make the supreme sacrifice and it is a complete atrocity that this continues to happen within the military. We must question the very structure of this institution to more deeply understand the issue. If you would like an advocate to speak about this issue at your school or organization, please contact us.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/womensfreedomcenter and at our website www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate 24 hours a day on our crisis line at 802-254-6954.