In May, the Pentagon released a new report that showed sexual assaults in the military were up sharply, up to the rate of 70 per day or three rapes every hour. In 2008, a female soldier in Iraq had a higher chance of being attacked by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, according to an Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on sexual assault in the military. Women in the military are more likely to be raped than civilian women.
It’s culture, baby. Which also explains why the problem has been so intractable. Scientists found a possible relationship between rape behavior and stereotypic conservative attitudes toward women, when surveying convicted rapists in prison. Other researchers “from Stanley Milgram to Phillip Zimbardo have shown that atrocities can be committed more easily when ordinary subjects (that is, not sociopaths) become desensitized in various ways. This can include exposure to authority figures who normalize violence by framing it as acceptable or good; depictions of the “other” as less than human; and widespread impunity.”
In order to kill an enemy, soldiers have to be taught to think of the enemy as less than human, according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. They are also initiated into a culture of hyper masculinity and in doing so, alienate women or anything perceived as feminine.
“For men going to war, it’s about becoming a man,” said NPR’s Quil Lawrence.
The military’s culture has been conducive to sexism and the degradation of women, according to Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who now advocates on behalf assault victims as executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network.
“At bases overseas, there’s commercial exploitation of women thriving around them, women being trafficked,” Bhagwati said. “You can’t expect to treat women as one of your own when, in same breath, you as a young soldier are being encouraged to exploit women on the outside of that base.”
This means female soldiers are caught between the enemy outside the wire, and the potential enemy inside the wire. The brother in arms who is supposed to watch their back is a threat. “You’re willing to take a bullet for the guy you just met and to have that trust willfully violated makes the sense of betrayal that much higher,” said Jessica Kenyon, who served with the Army in South Korea, and now runs online support services for military victims of sexual assault. She treats her cases like they are incest survivors due to the violation by a person they were supposed to be able to trust.
Women aren’t the only victims. According to the Washington Post, “One notable aspect of the Pentagon’s recent sexual-assault estimates was the level of male-on-male assaults. Men were the victims in nearly 14,000 of the estimated 26,000 assaults, although women, comprising a small fraction of active-duty personnel, had a higher rate of being assaulted.
The military has made efforts to reduce sexual assault but the culture cannot be changed from the inside as the current gender and power relations continue to foster this rape culture. According to the Washington Post, “Rapists rape because they can, because the stigma is placed on the victim not the rapist. And the more closed and hierarchical an institution is, the more the victim is stigmatized and the rapist gets away with it.” However, now that more women are coming into power in Congress and elsewhere, they are increasingly shining the light onto the military rape culture.
At the end of the day though, in order to stop the military rape culture, we need to decouple hyper masculinity from being a good soldier. It will take the female soldiers who persevere despite the odds to ultimately break that barrier. Fortunately, they’re already on the front lines and they’re breaking that barrier just by existing.
You go girls!