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Sexual Assault in the Military: Shaming the Perpetrators, Instead of the Victims

written by Erin Solaro
on April 01, 2010

The military has a problem with rape and kindred crimes, a problem far deeper than the numbers and the stories indicate — as bad as those numbers are. The reason is that the military, for all its rules and regulations, is essentially a shame culture, where honor and reputation are everything, instead of a guilt culture.

Shame is an emotion that is felt internally according to cultural norms; guilt is a matter of one's own actions. Sexual crimes against servicewomen, and sexual harassment of servicewomen by their brothers in arms, are profoundly dishonorable, shameful acts. So is their toleration, whether by other service members or the institution of the military itself. Yet in the atmosphere of the military now, although it is the perpetrators and their accomplices who are guilty, it is their victims who feel shame.

For that reason, although the remedies of court cases, lawsuits and sensitivity training have some use in the military as well as the civilian world (for criminal acts are criminal acts and training has its place), they will have no real effect. Until sexual crimes and tolerance of those crimes, their perpetrators, accomplices and accessories are treated as shaming and dishonoring to the military that permits them, instead of shaming the victims abandoned by the military, there will be no real improvement.

The first step to improvement is getting over the notion that aggression or testosterone are the roots of the problem. "Aggression" is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. In the military, useful aggression is serious, purposeful, disciplined. This is neither developed nor displayed by those military men who commit crimes against their fellow soldiers. Likewise, rape is poorly correlated with testosterone. Most men simply don't rape. Those who do, and most of those who do so repeatedly, do so because they're addicted to this type of crime. They cannot be reformed, they must be stopped. Period.

So why can't the military get it right?

Two reasons.

The first reason is not just limited to the military. Like the rest of civilian society, the military does not want to face the fact that rape is about sex reduced to torture. This is how some evil men like to get off. And evil, especially premeditated, repetitive evil, frightens people, including those in the military. As a result, blaming the victim, or at least piling up so many usual suspect excuses and extenuations that the enormity of the evil fades into "he said/she said" or "she was asking for it" become convenient dodges.

The second reason is uniquely military. In an institution dedicated to combat, women are stigmatized. The institutional meaning of the combat exclusion is that men are individuals while women are women: a group, a lower class. And second-class professional status means second-class human status as well in a world as demanding and totalistic as the military. The law defines men as "real" soldiers, and women as auxiliaries, Ironically, this status, meant to protect women, actually endangers them. It makes them more vulnerable to the enemy than the enemy is to them, does not ground their training in the possibility that although they may be cooks, they may also find themselves in the infantry, and leads many women to believe that they are somehow immune to exposure to combat. As a result, women are expected to think, "Combat is men's problem, not mine," or "I understand I may have to fight, I just don't know how."

So, because women are uniquely stigmatized in the military, the military has to handle the problem of sexual assault in a unique way.

First, the Department of Defense should urgently petition Congress for the repeal of all exclusionary and discriminatory policies against women as matters of military necessity and simple justice. Then, the senior male uniformed leadership, officer and enlisted, needs to talk in that language to the men they command. In essence, they should say: "Your sisters are here because we need them and because they have the citizen's right to participate in the common defense."

Second, sexual assault prevention training should not be handled by women. It should be handled by men with big biceps, shaved heads and lots of combat decorations, saying simply and coldly, "Any man who disrespects or harasses or rapes our sisters is not our brother and has no place amongst us." And then, those men should enforce that notion within the military.

Third, women should be encouraged to defend themselves, physically when possible, and to use the chain of command without fear of retaliation or indifference.

Finally, the military justice system needs to sustain aggressive prosecution of sexual crimes and harassment. Anyone who is convicted needs to be dishonorably discharged, at minimum. There should also be aggressive prosecution of accessories to the crimes before and after the fact. Superiors who knowingly engage in cruelty towards or maltreatment of subordinates by forcing them to, say, work with their rapists, or who work to get the victim discharged while retaining the criminal, and particularly Criminal Investigative Division personnel who harass and abuse victims, should find their career prospects quickly and permanently diminished. In severe cases, legal remedies and bad paper (a less-than-honorable discharge from the military) may be in order.

In sum, it was said that during the reign of Genghis Khan, a woman could walk from one end of the empire to the other, carrying a bag of gold, and arrive with her treasure and her virtue intact. Is it too much to expect that an American servicewoman receive a similar degree of safety — and respect — from her brothers in arms?

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