Sexual Assault and the Military: Old Remedies Don’t Work

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The news reports on the high rate of suicide in the military are subsiding, as the rate seems to be flattening.  New reports focus instead on the high rates of sexual assault. Unfortunately, the proposed solutions recycle the same old solutions: education for female Soldiers and prosecuting males.

But I fear that such proposals miss two important strategies: 1) changing the physical environments that enable sexual assault, and 2) education of male Soldiers as the consequences of impulsive sex.

There is nothing wrong with educating females, teaching them to go to bars with battle buddies and prosecuting aggressors. Unfortunately they do not work.

There are two major patterns of sexual assault in the military. The most common is the date-rape pattern. In a common scenario, two Soldiers go drinking. They start or end up on a park bench or a barracks room.  There is some sexual activity, which proceeds to intercourse. Often both are intoxicated. If the alleged victim goes to the police, there is little physical evidence. In the courts, it is a “he said-she said” scenario.

Whether he is found guilty or not, his career is over. She usually leaves the Service, having been humiliated and blamed throughout the legal process.

The other scenario is the power situation. He is a drill sergeant or recruiter or other position with power over her. (It is normally, but not always, a he-and-she situation). She wants to stay in the Army or get into the Army, so puts up with some fondling or other inappropriate behavior, which then proceeds to rape.

In both these scenarios, the couple is isolated. In the date-rape scenario, it is often on a park bench, in a hotel room, or in a barracks room. In the power-imbalance scenario, it is at Edgewood Arsenal, 13 miles away from Aberdeen Proving Grounds, at an isolated Coast Guard station, or at the Air Force Academy. Often it is a Lord of the Flies scenario, where morality has given way to lax local standards.

Another issue I have been struck by is the bewilderment of the man involved, especially in the date-rape situation. They went out for drinks, he thought the sex was consensual, and now he is facing five years in prison and the end of his military career.

So what are the solutions? As usual, no easy answer. But two strategies include changing the environment and educating men.

After the Aberdeen scandal in the late nineties, the Army moved to change the isolation of Edgewood Arsenal by providing more oversight. I advocate lights above park benches and more monitoring of barracks rooms (yes I know Soldiers are adults, but…).

And more education for males, drawing and adding to on what has been found successful on college campuses. Posters, modeled on suicide- prevention efforts: “Avoid jail; save your career, respect her when she says no. Or is too drunk to consent.”

The military is on the right path to try to reduce sexual assaults in its ranks. These suggestions could help.