In early January, when the scandal over raunchy videos shown on a ship's closed circuit television broke, I concluded that the US military is essentially a ginormous, government-funded frat house that also fights wars on our behalf. I was wrong. It is much worse than that.
Jesse Ellison at The Daily Beast reports that 17 women have filed a class action lawsuit against current Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor Donald "My New Book Says Nothing Is My Fault" Rumsfeld, stating that the "military's repeated failures to take action in rape cases created a culture where violence against women was tolerated, violating the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights." The evidence is grim. Department of Defense statistics indicate that reported sexual assaults increased 11 percent in 2009, meaning that at least one in three women have been sexually violated while serving in the military. They believe that the reported assaults account for only 20% of the assaults against women.
It is not just women who are sexually assaulted, either. More than half of those who screen positive for Military Sexual Trauma are men, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' data. For many, many reasons, sexual crimes committed against men are reported even less than those against women. Clearly something is wrong with the military's culture.
What can be done? Rebeka Havrilla, one of the plaintiffs, told Ellison that she filed the lawsuit hoping that one outcome will be that the military will outsource sexual assault training. She explains:
“Someone who is a misogynistic asshole isn’t going to change their minds because of some PowerPoint presentation. But at that point, at least you can’t claim ignorance. There’s no wishy-washy ‘Oh, it’s just boys being boys.’ If you have a leadership that doesn’t give a shit, nothing’s going to change. It has to start from the top down.”
My Duty to Speak, a site that publishes testimonials of survivors of military sexual assault, has the story of another one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. GallusMag at GenderTrender reminds readers that fewer than one in five cases is even referred for a court martial. The Service Women's Action Network is working overtime to change this culture and protect the servicewomen who are protecting us. When anyone signs up for military duty, they take on enough risks and stresses. Being attacked by their colleagues should never, ever happen, and if it does, it should be dealt with in a way that lets perpetrators know that this is not, under any circumstances ever acceptable.
This brings me back to two questions I raised back in January: 1) Is it possible to have a military that is not rooted in a misogynist, homophobic culture? Has that ever happened in history anywhere? I still don't have an answer for that, but I hope someone does. I think it is interesting. Certainly ancient Greek militaries were not homophobic. 2) Even if historically all military cultures were rooted in some sort of adolescent male fantasy land because there was a reason for it based on the type of combat, is that true today when so many things require education, logistics, and technology rather than brute force?
Some might say that the answer to the problem is to prevent women from serving. That ignores the fact that so many men are also raped. It's not about sex but gender norms. As long as we have a culture in which men try to prove they are men by abusing others, we will have these problems. As military experts point out, trauma and lack of unit cohesion undermine military effectiveness in the long term. Somehow I don't think this system makes sense for anyone.
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