The Military’s Rape and Sexual Assault Epidemic

Antoinette Bonsignore

Military rapes and sexual assaults are ignored and if not ignored so callously prosecuted within the Military Code of Justice as to suggest that rape is nothing more than a minor infraction deserving of little punishment, if any.

On February 15, 2011, fifteen female and two male military veterans filed a class action lawsuit against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and current Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  A second round of plaintiffs will likely be announced in early April.  These veterans have charged the defendants with the wholesale and systematic failure to protect servicemembers from being oftentimes repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted while serving in the military; and with a failure to investigate and subsequently prosecute and punish perpetrators. 

The complaint reads like a horror story.  One gruesome account after another detailing brutal assaults; sometimes repeated and sometimes committed by multiple perpetrators.  Rapes and sexual assaults that are ignored and if not ignored so callously prosecuted within the Military Code of Justice as to suggest that rape is nothing more than a minor infraction deserving of little punishment, if any.  A system set up to hide evidence, encourage victims to recant, and when the victim tries to receive some semblance of justice they are generally rewarded with demotions, harassment, and shockingly further rapes and sexual assaults as punishment. Victims are warned to stay quiet or face dire consequences.  The brave victims are blamed – the women in particular were just asking for it. 

One victim in the lawsuit recounted being gang raped; the perpetrators videotaped the rape and then circulated it among other soldiers.  When the victim reported the rape to her superior officer, who then viewed the video recording, he told her bluntly that he did not believe she was raped because she “did not act like a rape victim” and “did not struggle enough” in the video.  This same victim was seriously injured and covered in severe bruises after the assault — particularly from her shoulders to her elbows from being held down during the repeated rapes. 

Another victim was threatened with a court martial if she continued to “lie” about being raped by her superior officer.  Because she deigned to report the rape, as well as the months of sexual harassment and physical abuse she had endured prior to the actual rape, her identity was revealed to others on the military base by her commanding officers.  She was subjected to harassment from other soldiers who spit on her, called her names, and one commanding officer said “let her burn” because “she ruins careers.” 

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Yet another victim that reported her rape to the military chaplain was told that “it must have been God’s will for her to be raped” and he then suggested that she needed to go to church more.  Still another victim who was raped in 2007 was later murdered and then buried in a shallow fire pit six months after reporting the rape. 

The ramshackle investigatory apparatus and reporting system in place is staffed with military personnel who are often completely unqualified to investigate these crimes.  The Department of Defense’s (DOD) token attempt to address the epidemic by creating the very limited and still underfunded “…Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), which distributes posters, collects data, but has no enforcement or investigative authority…” has been a constant reminder of how the military thumbs its nose at any attempts to implement genuine reform.  In fact, the director of SAPRO, Dr. Kaye Whitley, has absolutely no experience or training dealing with sexual violence.  Greg Jacob, the Policy Director for the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), said that Whitley, a social worker, has no real access to policy makers.  She has no enforcement, or investigatory authority, and no actual authority to really do anything at all.  The Pentagon even went so far as to ignore a subpoena and prevent Dr. Whitley from testifying before the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs in July 2008. 

Specifically, Secretary Gates is accused of ignoring specific Congressional mandates and deadlines designed to implement a sexual assault and harassment prevention system.  Instead, plaintiffs allege that Gates hired an inexperienced contractor to implement that prevention system – and that the contractor that was selected had only three employees and their prior contracts were solely for janitorial work.  The Washington Post reported on this specific contractor story debacle on November 26, 2010.  The inexcusable lack of seriousness with which this epidemic has been treated by the Pentagon truly shocks the conscience.  

SWAN Policy Director and former Marine Greg Jacob recently detailed the crux of the investigatory deficiencies within the military for these types of crimes.  He stated “[t]here’s no investigatory training.  They don’t tell you to look for evidence…Instead, they hand over a manual for courts martial, which explains, among other things, that the investigating officer should consider, first and foremost, ‘the character and military service of the accused’.”  Jacob described the assessment of each reported crime as “…an HR approach to criminal conduct…Military justice imbued me with the ability to be judge and jury.  Honestly, I had no idea what to do.”

It almost sounds impossible to believe – how the DOD has ignored this growing epidemic for years and still no one has been held accountable.  Where is the outrage – and where are the resignations?  Donald Rumsfeld has not been held to answer for his knowing refusal to implement reform measures mandated by Congress.  And on Rumsfeld’s recent book tour, not once during his numerous interviews did any journalist ask a single question about this issue.  Meanwhile, Secretary Gates has responded with vague acknowledgments of a clear problem but with no specific response regarding his own failures to address the problem of what can only be characterized as complicity in perpetuating the problem. 

An August 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report detailing the results of a 2006 survey of 3,750 servicemembers stationed in the U.S. and overseas concluded that:

…occurrences of sexual assault may be exceeding the rates being reported, suggesting that DOD and the Coast Guard have only limited visibility over the incidence of these occurrences.  At the 14 installations where GAO administered its survey, 103 servicemembers indicated that they had been sexually assaulted within the preceding 12 months.  Of these, 52 servicemembers indicated that they did not report the sexual assault.  GAO also found that factors that discourage servicemembers from reporting a sexual assault include the belief that nothing would be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would gossip. 

Despite the inescapable evidence that this problem is getting worse with each passing year the DOD still maintains that it has a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault in the ranks. 

So now these seventeen brave veterans have gone public – with news conferences and repeated interviews – detailing the horrific assaults they have endured and the aftermath of deigning to report these crimes. 

The problems for these victims do not get any better when they return home.  Shamed, traumatized, and psychologically scarred – suffering from a form of post traumatic stress disorder known as military sexual trauma (MST) – these victims are so disabled that they cannot function let alone find employment.  To add further insult to this disgraceful treatment of the women and men victimized by the DOD’s recalcitrance, these victims have found it next to impossible to receive disability compensation from the Veterans Administration (VA) for their resulting MST.  The main reasons being a lack of evidence, evidence being destroyed, and a patently unfair evidentiary burden that victims finds nearly impossible to satisfy.  Representative Chellie Pingree (D – ME) recently introduced legislation to redress this specific compensation issue.  H.R. 930 will “…mandate that survivors of military sexual violence get the same service-connected disability compensation for their mental health conditions and physical injuries that combat veterans are currently awarded for wounds of war.” 

A previous lawsuit filed last December has also charged the DOD with a failure to comply with numerous and ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for documentation regarding the military’s records detailing the reports, investigations, and subsequent dispositions of these crimes. 

And the statistics are indeed staggering.  In December 2010, the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual harassment and violence – and the number of reports increased 64 percent from the previous year

Last December, Al Jazeera reported the following shocking statistics:

Every year, rape increases at an alarming rate within American military institutions – and even males are victims of the cycle.  In fact, due to raw demographics, one can roughly surmise that most victims of sexual abuse in the military are male.  Regardless of gender, reports of victims of military sexual assault have been increasing.  In 2007, there were 2,200 reports of rape in the military, whilst in 2009 saw an increase up to 3,230 reports of sexual assault.  Many of the victims suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and are shamed into silence, with numerous cases not even reported.  A disturbing trend, however, is how military officials seem to be sweeping this damaging issue under the rug and deflecting blame.

Even more disturbing is the fact that “[a]ccording to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the rate of sexual assault on women in the military is twice that in the civilian population.”  Furthermore, “[c]ompared with a 40 per cent arrest rate for sex crimes among civilians, only eight per cent of investigated cases in the military lead to prosecution.”

In 2006 Congress required the Pentagon to begin tracking these reported crimes and their subsequent disposition.  Al Jazeera reported that in 2006:

…there were 2,974 reported cases of rape and sexual assault in the military.  Of these, only 292 cases resulted in trials, and those netted only 181 prosecutions of perpetrators.  Nearly half the cases are dismissed for lack of adequate proof or due to the death of the victim.  Less than 11 per cent of the cases result in a court martial.  Often, those prosecuted merely suffer a reduction in rank or pay, and 80 per cent receive an honourable discharge nonetheless.  The victim, on the other hand, risks ending his or her career when they file charges.

Last week the Air Force released a study finding that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have been sexually assaulted while serving in the Air Force. 

Speaking with SWAN’s Policy Director Greg Jacob, he discussed the current status of the litigation and how SWAN has been working to garner increased bipartisan support for legislative and regulatory reform within the military and the VA.  He believes Congress has the political will to act and that the issue is being taken seriously now that the class action lawsuit has been filed.  He told me that even though the victims desperately need to be compensated for their disabilities, what these women and men are really seeking is real reform and justice for their suffering and help for those women and men dealing with the threats of sexual violence each and every day while still trying to serve the nation with honor. 

But real change can only be achieved when the military begins to consider the seriousness of the crimes and the impact on the victims as paramount to any potential impact on the careers of the accused servicemembers; right now the concern within the military is focused solely on protecting the accused and not the victims.  The military has become an entrenched system that all too easily blames victims – and retaliates against those victims with systematic harassment and intimidation.  Victims are subjected to ridicule and they all too often become convinced that the shame will be too much to bear.  

Real change will take time – but before that change can even begin the military and Secretary Gates must take responsibility for refusing to confront the problem and acknowledge the military’s complicity in obstructing justice for so many years and creating what Greg Jacob called a “climate of impunity.” 

You can visit SWAN’s Change.org page to take action and let Congress know that the Armed Forces must be held accountable for perpetuating this rape and sexual assault epidemic. 

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

News Law and Policy

Supreme Court Tie in Dollar General Case ‘Clear Victory’ for Tribal Sovereignty

Nicole Knight Shine

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

A U.S. Supreme Court tie on Thursday represented a win for tribal court authority in a case involving a Dollar General employee accused of molesting a 13-year-old more than a decade ago.

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

Justices deadlocked 4 to 4 in their opinion, leaving in place a federal appellate court decision that rejected Dollar General’s challenge to tribal court jurisdiction.

“It’s a clear victory,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, counsel to the nonprofit National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), in an interview with Rewire. NIWRC filed an amicus brief in the case in favor of tribal sovereignty, along with 104 other organizations. “Dollar General spent a lot of time, and lot of money, and a lot of resources attempting to completely eliminate tribal jurisdiction.”

In 2003, Dale Townsend, a Dollar General store manager, allegedly engaged in repeated acts of sexual molestation at the store on a then-13-year-old Choctaw boy, who was placed there by a youth job-training program. The Dollar General store sits on tribal trust lands, agreed to Mississippi Choctaw tribal court jurisdiction regarding its store lease, and operates under a business license issued under Choctaw code.

In 1981, the Court ruled in Montana v. United States that tribal authority extends to non-Natives entering into consensual relationships with a tribe “through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements,” as SCOTUSblog wrote in the case preview.

Dollar General, however, argued the tribal court had no authority. In its appeal, the Tennessee-based corporation invoked a 1978 ruling, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, in which the Supreme Court held that tribal courts lacked judicial power over non-members in criminal cases.

The boy’s case, however, was a civil matter. While the tribe’s attorney general took steps to bar the Dollar General manager from the reservation, the U.S. Attorney did not bring criminal charges against Townsend. The boy’s family is suing Dollar General and the store manager for damages in excess of $2.5 million, a case that can now continue in tribal court.

Advocates had called the closely watched case an “attack on tribal sovereignty.”

“Nowadays, it’s a very good thing when tribal rights and powers are freshly affirmed,” Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, told Rewire in a phone interview Thursday. “Had Justice Scalia been sitting on the Court, this case would have depended on Scalia’s vote. That’s why there was a great deal of concern and anxiety about the outcome of the case.”

The death of conservative Justice Scalia, and Republican gridlock, has left the highest court in the land with only eight justices.

“If Dollar General had been successful … tribal governments would have been stripped of their inherent jurisdiction over the majority of individuals attempting to harm their men, women, and children,” Nagle, counsel for NIWRC, told Rewire.

“In Indian country, our men, women, and children face the highest rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and murder—higher than any other population in the United States,” she noted. “The U.S. Department of Justice has reported that the majority of these assaults are committed by non-Indians.”

When prosecutors decline to pursue these kinds of crimes, survivors have increasingly turned to civil courts for recourse.  

More than four out of five Native women are subjected to some form of violence, and 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, according to a May 2016 National Institute of Justice Research Report.

Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Chief Phyllis Anderson told the Associated Press that the Supreme Court tie was a positive outcome “not only for our tribe, but for all of Indian country.”