Sexual Assault in the Ranks, And in Society

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Navy photo / MC 2nd Class James R. Evans

Sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson explore San Francisco's waterfront while on liberty.

The specter of violence against women, including domestic abuse and sexual assault, continues to grow unabated.

Even with films such as The Invisible War, and desperate acts of retribution such as Lorena Bobbit’s penile amputation, and murder –as- self-defense depicted in The Burning Bed — violence against women appears to know no bounds.

Scads of documentation by the Pentagon, law enforcement, and NGOs have not seemed to change the dismissive attitudes about the subject. Some blame the victim: “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time…she was drinking…she was wearing provocative clothing…what do you expect when women decide to enter a man’s world?” Some excuse the perpetrator: “Boys will be boys,” while others engage in denial — “It was consensual” — continue to excuse violence as par for the course.

Murder of the men, and rape of women, as a method of ethnic cleansing was a tactic used in ancient times, and continued as recently as the wars in Bosnia. Institutionally condoned rape as a method of keeping military men under control was common as recently as World War II, in brothels for sex slaves in Japanese controlled Korea, and “work camps” for Jewish women in Nazi Germany (one has to wonder, if the Japanese found Koreans and German Nazi’s found Jews so disgusting as humans, why they would want to have sex with them?).

Even for the U.S. military, brothels were common outside of military posts both stateside and overseas. Whenever a Navy ship called at a liberty port, condoms were standard issue before allowing sailors to depart the ship. It’s no wonder that sex has become a commodity, as well as an ingrained sociological force that men so often take as their right.

While sexual assault and rape in the military have come under scrutiny in recent years, with repeated studies documenting the problem, it persists, as it persists in society.


I think it is because our whole social structure revolves around sex. It sells everything from cigarettes to cars. A selling point in the entertainment industry is for beautiful and sexy young women to be teamed up with middle aged men. Violence against women is also used by the entertainment industry to entertain, as well as heroize men who go after what they want, whether it be a job or a woman. Women’s magazines are also to blame, by convincing young girls that they will not be liked/popular/get a boyfriend, etc., unless they succumb to the latest fashion and make-up trends to become attractive to men. And in the military, recruits are required to obey authority, and don’t yet know when that authority has exceeded his or her power.

But what to do about it?

As they say, Rome was not built in a day, and neither will it be destroyed in one. However, I do have hope that the military will become the leader in helping to change attitudes and behaviors that denigrate women. As with racial integration, it took many years for people to come to realize that black men were just as capable of fighting and dying for their country as white men. The complete integration of minorities in the United States is not yet complete, but the military was the leader in ensuring racial equality starting in the 1950s.

As with racial inequality, the problem of sexual assault is societal.

And its criminality can be, and is, legislated. However, it will not be wiped out until everyone upholds the law, or leaders ensure the folks under their command uphold the law.  Ida B. Wells, a noted crusader against racism, said in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (University of Chicago Press 1970), “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” meaning the need to be “alert as the watchman on the wall.” Without enforcement, it matters not what the law says.

Since the military is an organization that allows — and even encourages leaders in all level of authority — to uphold standards, it must start there. However, we also know, from sex scandals at training facilities such as the military academies, the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and most recently at Lackland Air Force Base, that there must be checks and balances. There can be no middle ground: either we accept that sexual misconduct is unacceptable and be proactive about it, or we will be forever reactive to its consequences.

“Trust but verify,” President Reagan said of arms-control pacts with the Soviet Union. The military needs to take the same approach, trusting in its leaders to do the right thing, but ensuring checks are in place to make sure the rules stick. Nothing less will solve the issue.