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On V Update to Old Ideas: Sexual Assault Edition

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.

To check out other “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, please click here.)

On Tuesday, I wrote a glowing review of The Invisible War, the Oscar-nominated documentary on sexual assault in the military. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Since I’ve been following this issue for years now, I want to share some updates on the topic in general. More specifically, I want to respond to the biggest mainstream criticism I have read…

Rosa Brooks Doesn’t Think Sexual Assault is a Problem in the Military

More precisely, she doesn’t think it’s a greater problem than rape in the civilian world. As Rosa Brooks writes in Foreign Policy...

“Sexual assault in the military is a genuine and serious problem, but the frantic rhetoric may be doing more harm than good. It conceals the progress the military has made in developing effective sexual assault prevention and response programs, and it distracts us from the even higher rates of sexual violence in comparable civilian populations.”

While we admire Rose Brooks, this article has several significant problems. First, I don’t think the military has made progress addressing sexual assault, unless Rosa Brooks is referring to the last six months or so, which seems odd (and unlikely). As NPR and The Invisible War point out, in 2011, only 96 reported cases of sexual assault went to court-martial. For some anecdotal evidence, it took over a year for the Navy to bring charges against three Naval Academy football players. (Don’t worry, the Academy charged the victim with drunkenness in “no time at all” in the words of The New York Times.) Situations like this just don’t occur in the civilian world--at least the victims don’t get charged with crimes before their attackers.

Mainly, though, I don’t agree with Brooks’ numbers. Check out the numbers in this article, this article and the Wikipedia page on the issue, then compare them to her numbers. Fifteen percent of female veterans who return from war zones have experienced “military sexual trauma”. (More on this phrase later in this post.) That number is way higher than annual civilian sexual assault rates.

My explanation for the difference is that Rosa Brooks mixed lifetime rape statistics with yearly rates in the military. A recent article in The New Yorker on the Steubenville rape case cited the CDC’s estimate that 20% of all women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Based on the numbers I cited above, that’s the about the same rate for women in the military...except military careers don’t last a lifetime.

I would also flip this issue on its head: if civilian sexual assault rates are the same as the military, then America has a rape problem. It still needs to be addressed.

Actually, Read That New Yorker Article

Because it is fantastic. Ariel Levy fairly depicts both sides of the Stuebenville rape case, telling a complex and difficult narrative different than most of the breathless cable coverage of this story.   

A Legitimate Criticism of The Invisible War

One of the best criticisms I found of The Invisible War was that it didn’t focus enough on male-on-male rape in the US military. Though the film featured one victim of male sexual assault, clearly the film focused on women. As James Dao of The New York Times points out, most victims of rape in the military are men.

Amanda Marcotte, at Slate, connects this to society’s beliefs about rape:

“...what this astonishing number demonstrates is the truth of what feminists have been saying about sexual assault all along: It is not caused by an overabundance of sexual desire, but is an act of violence perpetrated by people who want to hurt and humiliate the victim, using sex as a weapon.

“That’s why comments such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s during the Senate hearings on rape in the military are not just offensive, but flat-out wrong. Chambliss acknowledged the gravity of the problem but ended up minimizing it by saying, ‘Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.’ These kinds of comments perpetuate the myth that rape is not that big of a deal, the result of miscommunication, or caused by men being just too damn horny and ladies being just too damn sexy to not rape.”

How We (Don’t) Talk About Rape

First, Katie Halper at Jezebel lambasts an AP article that confuses sex with rape. (They’re not the same thing.)

Next up, Joshua Kors, in his article, “Winning the Language War, Defeating 'Military Sexual Trauma'” breaks down how the military’s use of the acronym MST (Military Sexual Trauma) obscures the horror of the actual act. He even interviews On Violence language favorite Geoffrey Nunberg to get his opinion. A must read.

Finally, The New York Times’ “Talking Note” blog explains that the military has had a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault for over twenty years now. Since so many soldiers have been reassigned after rape cases, how can they have a zero tolerance policy?

World War II and Rape

Here’s the thing about sexual assault and the military: it didn’t happen in the Greatest Generation’s time. That’s what’s so disappointing about the current crisis. Oh wait...

“In her new book, "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France," Roberts writes that while heroism abounded during liberation, for some Allied troops, command of geographical territory meant command of sexual territory, as well. As they entered and occupied the port towns of Le Havre, Reims, Cherbourg and Marseilles, many soldiers took what they wanted - when and where they wanted - from the French female population.”

four comments

Good post. To go a little farther on your male-male point, you are giving women a pass here. According to CDC data (the categorization of which is biased such that women more or less cannot rape), at least within the civilian world, men are 50 of perpetrators. Check it out: http://imgur.com/wd4XiOd The exact interpretation of the proportion of rapist by gender is dependent on rates of repeat offense. If men and women repeat at equal rates then the 40% figure holds up. To bring this back to the military, I imagine this way of looking at things would change the way we talked about sexual assault if people realized women were nearly as likely as men to commit a sexual crime.

Either way, males experience sexual violence as often as females and the cursory treatment these issues receive even from advocates (who declaim gender neutrality, while usually merely putting some male-advocacy bunting on a female focused platform) is shameful.

  1. Good post too, though I don’t feel like I can contribute much, comments-wise. Just about WWII and rape, and the excerpted text about the GIs in liberated France : this is a subject that has long been taboo, and still in, in great part. I remember that back in the 2003, 2004, 2005 ish or so years, a French book and companion documentary were made on the topic. Still, even at the time of the worst of the Franco-US “dispute”, it really didn’t get much exposure, IIRC, the doc was aired on public teevee, but very late in the evening, in the week, and the book was not promoted much; as I recall it, the official ‘mood’, as demonstrated during the D-Day commemoration, was more on insisting on the European reconciliation and all, with interviews of German soldiers who served in Normandy, rather than pointing the finger at the USA. I’d say that even now that the war is going for good out of living memory and into History, it still remains for the largest part, a construct, or rather, a serie of constructs, each aimed at furthering a National Myths (say, the “Blitz” mythos vs the forgotten human cost of Aliied bombings in France, twice as heavy)… Incidentally, the (current, replacing the post-war to late 1960’s one) French one is a particularly poisonous and self-destructive one, IMHO, but that is an another topic altogether.

My point is, WWII rapes or not, it doesn’t matter, there won’t be a real ‘insight’ into that war for quite some time yet, as long as ‘digesting’ it goes against the above National Myths – and God know that WWII is THE cornerstone of the US “mystical imperialism”, to a point it’s just no use trying to argue against it.
Hell, that particular book was mentioned on a “red meat” rather popular forum, and it went as gracefully as you could expect, French sluts and sissified men, and US Supermen trying to enhance the genpool.

Anyway, my apologies for the tangent and the rather off-topic comment. I guess the only real way one could link that to your own text, would be that “mythos” aspect.

Pardon me if that reads a bit too harsh, but IMHO, the modern USA are a Nation of draft-dodgers, period.

The human burden of waging war is shouldered by a tiny, culturally and socially well-defined minority (broadly speaking, I’m aware of that), its financial cost is kept hidden and diffuse…
And the unspoken agreement is IMHO that the majority is relieved of that weight, in exchange of letting the minority unaccountable.
While said minority ignore the cowardice and dereliction of civil duty by the majority, in exchange of (a facade of) military-worship.

Thus the “mythos” of the “Warriors”, “War-fighters”,…

And, back to the sexual assaults issues, this very unspoken agreement is a change-killer, through a lack of institutional self-introspection (“warrior culture”), and a lack of pressure to change from the society at large (who would want to “hate America”?)…
And let’s not even talk about male-on-male sexual violence…

Quite an unhealthy atmosphere, if one wants to correct ingrained deviancies.

Maybe I’m overanalyzing things, and maybe I’m stuck too much in certain “bubbles”, you know, being very fond of peeking into the rightwing nuttery (of which I’m kinda part of, anyway), but examining it from afar, the relationship between the US Nation and its armed forces is very paradoxal.

Looks great or even dreamish at first, yellow ribbons, USA! USA! USA!,…

But if one scratches the surface a bit, it gets hollow at the core, real quick, with the “supporting the troops” falling in three categories : the ones who have skin in the game (a tiny slice); the ones who act the part (the tacticool culture and the keyboard commandos); and the vast majority, who gives lip-service, but really, really, really want not to have to do anything past that, and needs to have the reality of war safely tucked away from its sight.

My 0.02. stream of consciousness.


Good article. I am too busy to submerge myself in the official data substantiated by the CDC found above or in additional FBI NCVS data, but I will concur to say that sexual assault, sexual battery, and/or rape are unfortunately prevalent in an exclusive, male-dominated subculture (US military).

The phrase military sexual trauma is the worst army acronym ever. What does “military” have to do with it?