Is Sexual Violence Endemic to the U.S. Military?

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Aaron Belkin is at the nexus of the military and its challenges in dealing with sexual matters in the ranks. A professor of political science at San Francisco State University, he founded and directs the Palm Center, a think tank that conducts research into gender and military issues that is part of the UCLA law school.

His new book, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001, argues that U.S. military power hides a culture of sexual violence among U.S. troops. Throughout modern American history, he asserts, the bleak underside of military culture has been sanitized by excluded outcasts – African Americans, women, and most recently gays and lesbians – who have attested to the nobility of the armed forces in exchange for the right to serve. Battleland had this email chat with Belkin earlier this week:

Why did you write Bring Me Men?

I wrote the book to apologize for the activist work that I had done to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The repeal strategies that I pursued required me to glorify the military as well as American foreign policy more broadly.

This, in turn, added to the ever-increasing militarization of American culture and politics. Yes, the military and the troops deserve our respect. But when respect turns into unthinking glorification, that’s dangerous.

Bring Me Men is a critique of that process of adulation, and an apology for the ways in which I contributed to militarization in pursuit of repeal.

Is the U.S. military a force for change – integration of minorities, women and now gays come to mind – or something that preserves the status quo?

It is both.

There is no question that the military has done a good job integrating some minorities, and that when groups obtains equal or at least somewhat equal status within the armed forces, that has a powerful effect on civilian society. So in this sense, the military has been a force for change.

At the same time, the military portrays the ideal warrior in terms of a very narrow range of characteristics including stoicism, obedience and discipline. When civilians venerate and pursue that archetype as the ideal model of personhood, that crowds out a lot of other possibilities.

Why does the military seem to have such recurring problems with sex – from the current alleged abuse of female Air Force recruits at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to the horrific crimes detailed in the movie The Invisible War?

In order to produce warriors, the military creates a version of the master/slave dynamic between subordinates and their superiors, thus giving commanders almost unlimited authority over the people they supervise and train.

Then, you combine this authority with two additional factors. The military must teach people how to overcome barriers that prevent civilians from engaging in violence. And, military culture is masculine and hierarchical, emphasizing power, dominance and subordination. When you combine these dynamics, you get rape.

You write about male-on-male rape in the military. Why? How common is it, and what, if anything, does it tell us?

Conservatively, I estimate that there are about 2,200 male-male rapes among service members each year. Despite its prevalence, male-male rape in the military is almost never discussed in public, and that silence reveals a lot about how the military and the public think about masculinity.

The male warrior is supposed to have a completely impermeable, sealed-up body that cannot be penetrated by anything. But at the same time, male warriors are often expected to endure rape, to “take it like a man.” And, these opposing expectations illustrate the broader range of contradictions associated with military masculinity, in that troops are expected to be masculine and feminine, civilized and barbaric, dirty and clean, and so on.

Heidi Schumann / The Gill Foundation.

If you were in charge, what is the one thing about the U.S. military you would change? Why?

I would shrink our military dramatically, because the most significant threats facing our country are not military threats, because Pentagon spending wastes money that should be spent on education and because excessive military strength undermines our security.

All that said, the most dangerous thing about the military may not be the military itself, but civilian society’s uncritical glorification of the troops, and that would still be a problem even if the military were smaller.

Since 9/11, many have begun calling our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines “warriors.” You take issue with the American public’s idealization of the troops. But what’s wrong with that?

Respect for the troops is important. But when respect turns into uncritical idealization, that can easily slip into a mode of thinking in which people assume that what’s good for the military is good for America.

Consider former Justice Sanda Day O’Connor’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case in which retired military leaders urged the court to uphold the constitutionality of affirmative action. Justice O’Connor wrote that if affirmative action is a good idea for the military, it must be appropriate for the rest of the country.

I support affirmative action. But when this kind of militarist thinking permeates civilian society, it becomes that much harder to reduce the Pentagon’s budget and to resist decisions to go to war. And it all starts with uncritical glorification of the troops.

Despite the fits and starts, isn’t the U.S. military becoming more representative of U.S. society?

Not really. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” suggests that in terms of sexual orientation, the military does more fully reflect civilian society. But, the force still depends heavily on people of color and members of the lower and lower-middle classes, especially among enlisted personnel.

Men are over-represented service-wide, and as you move up in rank, the officer corps becomes more conservative, heterosexual, white and male. (Not many liberal African-American lesbian admirals!)

These demographic and ideological divergences are important for many reasons, including that when the military goes to war, suffering is not distributed equally, and the sons and daughters of Washington’s decision makers rarely see combat.

Given such sexual trauma over the years, how come the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has gone so smoothly?

The troops were already serving with gays, so repeal didn’t change anything on the ground. Prior to repeal, the Pentagon found that of the roughly 70% of service members who had served with gays and lesbians, more than 90% said that they did not have a problem doing so. And that included Marines and other combat troops.

Following repeal, gays and straights have continued to behave professionally, as has always been the case. And, Pentagon leadership has insisted that regardless of personal feelings, the troops must work together and follow the same set of rules. That’s why repeal has gone so well.

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I too have been military for most of my life - family was, I was and 2 of my brothers, and me and my spouse.  I served in ODS/S.  My take away is that it would help to say first, these crimes are examples of aberrant behavior.  These crimes happen in every major institution not only to women but children and men.   Recent headlines about pedophilia in churches, schools, and universities.  These are aberrant and they constitute crimes.  

A big problem is that the local commanders do not have a good support team or process to help them deal with these difficult cases.  I used to work around airplanes and when the fell out of the sky, we pulled our checklists, and ran through the process - ensure the logs were completed and verified correct, collect the evidence, preserve the crash site, and protect it, take care of those who were hurt, get statements from everyone involved.  For some reason, when it comes to these types of crimes, right - thinking people shut down.  They avoid.

This is a tough tough issue.  You don't know if someone who is supposed to work the process is also compromised or hiding a problem w/past, recent or current abuse of this nature, either on the job or at home.  Imagine having this happen on your watch and you're isolated from any kind of real support by 'experts'.

The problem sounds like its widespread enough that a specialized team should be available to any commander to call on.  In fact, they should make the process so that if a call isn't made, it would be treated as if a plane had crashed.


Is it helpful to recognize that an unprovoked assault of any kind is aberrant behavior?  If yes, then can we accept this is very tough stuff?  Why do we believe the average man/woman in uniform is capable of properly adjudicating the processes of criminal actions, legal actions, and psychological actions?  Most of us are not well equipped to confront and deal with these problems in a domestic situation, in our churches, or how about university sports programs.  When military professionals are called upon to properly assess, judge, and act quickly during war or a series of missions/operations, in a distant location, away from helpful resources - is it any wonder these crimes go unreported, hidden, and overlooked?   If these assaults happen at a military base in CONUS, then we are back to the fact that being  'at peace' does not guarantee better handling or outcomes.  Maybe the MST cases are a symptom of a bigger problem that exists at home, in businesses, in the military too where these cases go unrecorded, under reported, and again, whittled down to denial by everyone, including at times the victims.    

I too was raised in a military family, and retired after a 20 year military career, including ODS/S.  My conclusion was that women inside the military have to be as vigilant as they were outside the military, on college campuses, and yes, in any workplace.  And if men would assume the same and police their own when they know of a problem, that would help.  But, most of us don't want to spend out time thinking about aberrations.   So, expecting everyone to be able to deal with this easily is Pollyanna thinking.  It's a tough topic and underneath it all, you don't know if whom ever you are dealing with any where along the process is or has been abused themselves.  That presents further complications in the fair and transparent resolution of these types of crimes.Policy cannot solve this - let's recognize that special training and education is needed - a better, special process that recognizes the difficulty of these crimes.  Taking a tip from the FAA and AF accident boards - task the unit to do initial police work like record the assault, identify the individuals, preserve the evidence, begin the investigation.  Then another outside team comes in, and takes over the investigation and finish it up calling in experts as needed.  That's what we used to do for airplane crashes.  A similar process would provide a better outcome and let the force and world know, leadership won't tolerate this kind of conduct.   


I doubt that Aaron Belkin would have much interest in serving in our (or any) military, and I am certain he doesn't know what the term "warrior" actually means. One has to walk a mile in the boots to understand.   


Is there a culture of sexual violence in the US military? I don't know. But the behavior I witnessed was usually a reflection of who an individual was before he entered the Marines. The Marine Corp doesn't make rapists, and I'm confident that neither does the Navy or Army. What war does to a few badly traumatized individuals is different issue. 


Personally, I saw more destructive sexual behavior in college than in the Marine infantry. We took our professionalism very seriously. (It's worth noting, with regard to the issue of sexual competition, that there are no women in those units.) One should be very careful before implying that the military itself fosters sexual violence. Such culture runs counter to the success of an organization, and good leaders intuitively know that. As in all human society, there are some evil individuals.


I really appreciate this comment and at the same time, I think the statement "What war does to a few badly traumatized individuals is different issue. " is a perfect example of the dynamic expressed by Belkin. What is "a few"? A handful? Less than 100? Less than 1000?  The numbers of soldiers who have fought valiantly and returned with PTSD suggest it isn't "a few" by any means.

I am not surprised at the rebuff Belkin is receiving, but I don't believe that shows him as incorrect. I think it merely demonstrates as systemic the dynamic is- it happens second nature. This is what he talks about when he describes the need to overcome that which keeps civilians non-violent.


In some cases, women and military don't mix. I don't mean that to be offensive, it's just an observation of mine. Women weren't allowed to stay overnight at any of our outposts during OIF V or OIF VII. There's a reason for that. You keep men in a combat zone long enough, they start to go crazy (no matter how much you try to deny it, their craziness is either contained or exposed...but it's always there). Introduce a lone woman into that mix (I understand that she is under extreme stress while deployed too) and it's a recipe for disaster. Certain jobs in the military truly aren't suitable for women. 


@mattbm Sexual assault has been a problem in the military long before women served. My uncle witnessed a gang rape in Vietnam, and the person who got raped surely didn't have no lady-parts, but they were wearing a U.S. uniform. Rape isn't just about somebody needing to poke their d*ck in something, if that was the case hetero men wouldn't be raping hetero men, which accounts for the largest number of military rapes. As a proud citizen of this country I find it offensive when people use the whole "wimmens is just too pretty" argument to dismiss the seriousness of this problem. (The same argument was also used to keep woman out of the civilian workforce BTW.) I thought discipline made the soldier. Anybody can shoot a gun. Anybody can kill. I thought what my tax money paid for was DISCIPLINED warriors. And shouldn't discipline start with keeping it in your pants? And reporting and disciplining those who don't? Female soldiers didn't cause the problem of military rape, but I'll think they'll be the ones who open the door to the problem being dealt with, since women tend to run our mouths when something happens to us. (It's our superpower.) I hope the women coming forward is a catalyst for the even greater number of male soldiers who've been abused.


With  open gays in the USN, there will be lots of slapping and scratching......ewww/ hissss 

Mike Vey
Mike Vey

Based on a 2011 DMDC (Defense Manpower Data Center) report:

"Men are over-represented service-wide"  - Males make up 86% of the military... how is there over-representation when the vast majority of military members are MEN?

"... the force still depends heavily on people of color" - Minorities make up 25% of the military, while whites make up 75%. Doesn't seem "heavily" reliant to me.

Author can't do simple fact-checking, so don't care to read a book full of inaccuracies/lies.

Jheanne d'Arc
Jheanne d'Arc

I am a US Army Veteran and a survivor of "military sexual assault."  I'm not exactly how to take some of what Mr. Belkin has said.  I am not in favor of reducing our military - as Teddy Roosevelt said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." 


Mr. Belkin said, "military culture is masculine and hierarchical, emphasizing power, dominance and subordination."  And - I disagree with that statement.  The majority of the people that I encountered in my years in the military were more interested in service to others and being a part of something bigger than themselves than they were in power.  They recognized that the people they were in charge of weren't their slaves - they were their personal responsiblity.  A responsibility that I was also taught and tried my best to carry out when I became the one "in charge."  There are men and women that I served with that, if they called, I would drop everything to get to them.


Then there were "the others."  Something that Mr. Belkin left out is that Rape is NEVER about sex - it is always about Power and Control.  It is about subjugating and humiliating another human being.  No amount of sexual assault awareness training is going to weed these individuals from the ranks - and they leave a stain on us all.  These individuals were predators, pure and simple, they were predators before they joined the military and they will seek prey long after they are discharged.  Unfortunately, there is a culture of protecting the ranks through covering up the incidents of sexual assault.  The predators are moved on somewhere else - the victims are often "discharged" - and the predators are free to strike again. 


The other issue the article failed to mention is that the male-on-male sexual assault has nothing to do with sexual orientation.  It is not gay men being raped by gay men - it is hetero on hetero in the majority of the cases.  Again - refer to the reality that is is not about SEX - it is about POWER. 


No matter what has happened to me - I have loved, do love and will love the US Army til the day I die.  I would do it all again for the love of having the opportunity to be a good soldier.  On the other hand, I will never allow my children to serve, not until this problem is resolved.  It is one thing to ask a person to die for their Country - it is something entirely different to ask them to be raped for their country.  That was never part of the deal!


Joan - www.enemyinthewire.wordpress.c...


I never saw that babbling buffoon when steaming up the Saigon River with machine guns scanning the tree line.

For whatever that is worth.

But, I must declare that enlisting in the military means you are serving the elite-class masters, corporate USA, etc.

You will not defend the USA!!!

You will defend the wealth flow and interests of the ruling masters and our corporate overlords.

Let the masters send their vile spawn to bleed and die overseas.

Thank you.

Jim Thornton
Jim Thornton

I have been in or around the military my entire life as an Army brat and then active service in the Navy and Reserve service in the Air Force.

I completely disagree with Belkin's "master/slave" characterization of military culture.   Belkin either dismisses or is ignorant of the massive amount of time and resources spent in the military to grow leaders.  The first clue you have a horrible superior in uniform is the person who first resorts to rank or position to get the mission done.  The misconception the military is full of unthinking enlisted robots and commissioned officer tyrants is the most common one held by civilians and Belkin's expressed views only reinforce that misconception.

While I agree the military encourages stoicism and discipline I don't agree obedience is.  From the time you first join until you separate you are aware there is a chain-of-command and issues are resolved through the chain and if they can't be there are a number of independent outlets such as the Inspector General's, Equal Opportunity Officers, and Chaplains to resolve an issue when there is a poor command climate.

Belkin leaves out "service before self" which is a value prevalent in each of the Armed Forces.

Although no longer in uniform, I'm still working for the military as a civilian employee.  I attend yearly sexual harassment and rape prevention training.  My strongest critique of the training is the failure to address the link between alcohol abuse and sexual assault.  I reject the notion that military culture breeds sexual assault.  The statistics between sexual assault in the military and on college campuses is nearly identical.

The serious social ill of sexual assault is an American social ill.  The film "Invisible War" plays on the tragedy of female warriors being betrayed by their brothers-in-arms.

Finally, it is intellectually dishonest to link the issue of sexual assault with critiques of American Foreign Policy or policy decisions on the size of the military.


I think Aaron went too far when he implied that U.S. civilian society is not "conservative, heterosexual, white and male" dominated, but that the military is!  We all know civilian society and popular media is similarly white male dominated, suffering just as unevenly distributed.  In this case clearly because the military mimics, and is indeed a product of American society, and not the other way around.

As if there are many liberal African-American lesbian civilian CEO's.

Marcus Karlsson
Marcus Karlsson

I agree, also, how many liberal African-American Lesbians are there period? Not that many. So if they barely exist in society, why should we be expecting them to be admirals? On the other hand, there are millions of white male heterosexuals that are conservative. Dumb argument.


A great interview, and a great book subject.  Aaron Belkin's perspective on military issues is always informed and insightful.  During the long process of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," his work ensured that the final policy decision was about military readiness and constitutional faithfulness, not political advantage or personal preference.

I agree with his concern that part of the price to be paid for repeal was an undue deference to military control in a system that is supposed to be based on civilian control.  He is also correct that uncritical civilian glorification is having an absolutely corrosive effect on military professionalism.  It's one of the most unhealthy aspects of an all-volunteer military. We look the other way when civilian leaders misuse the military, or when military leaders ignore misconduct, because no one wants to be accused of disrespecting the military.

Belkin suggests shrinking the military dramatically as a way of reducing its outsized influence in foreign and domestic policy.  However, it could be more effective to shrink the proverbial "military-industrial complex" and increase the percentage of military personnel within that smaller slice of the pie.  Today, we use an artificially small military (given the missions we ask it to perform) as a base for an astronomically large tail of civilian defense contractors and agencies.  At the same time, the military itself grows increasingly self-selected and insular--less representative of America, not more.  Recruiting is difficult and quality is lacking at the margins.  The military sells itself as a place for young people who are disaffected with and contemptuous toward civilian society and civilian norms.  And then we're surprised when the military has a great deal of trouble protecting military women from abuse, or protecting military men from harming themselves.

What we call "military culture" today is far afield from a culture that is good for the military or good for civilian society.  Belkin's new book, "Bring Me Men," will be an important part of a new conversation about how Americans can find a more healthy civil-military relationship.

Former Air Force officer and author of "A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger"

Leslie Vazquez
Leslie Vazquez

In this case clearly because the military mimics, and is indeed a product of American society, and not the other way


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