Written by Adele M. Stan for RH Reality Check.
At a Capitol Hill news conference called in May by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in support of her legislation to address sexual assault in the military, Brian Lewis, a former petty officer in the U.S. Navy, told of how, at the age of 20, he was raped on board a ship by a superior officer, and then drummed out of the service and denied his Veterans Administration benefits when he took his complaint to his commanding officer.
While the Navy never denied the assault took place, according to the Guardian, Lewis’ attacker went unpunished. At the press conference, Lewis said that instead, he suffered retaliation for having made the complaint in the form of a false diagnosis of a personality disorder by a Navy psychiatrist—a diagnosis that led to his separation from the service without benefits.
Lewis’ story is not unlike those told by many military women who suffer sexual assault by members of higher rank, who endure sexual assault during their time in the service at more than five times the rate of men. (Indeed, at the same press conference, Jennifer Norris, a former sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, told of suffering post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] after enduring several sexual assaults, and then losing her security clearance because of her PTSD diagnosis.)
Despite the higher rate of sexual assault in the military against women, Pentagon statistics estimate a greater number of assaults against men—some 53 percent of all sexual assaults in the military—based on the fact that the services are overwhelmingly male. With the upcoming release of Justice Denied, a documentary that focuses on the stories of men who suffered sexual assault while serving in the armed forces, an emphasis on their stories is moving to the fore. And that’s a good thing for all survivors, one would assume, for it exposes a pervasive culture of sexual predation in the military.
But if a recent New York Times front page story is any indication, attempts are already being made to distinguish the rape experiences of male survivors as inherently worse than women’s, and to continue framing assaults on women in terms of the rapist’s sexual desire, not the same quest for domination that motivates those who assault men.
Given society’s default position in disbelieving the woman who dares to accuse her rapist, advocates for sexual assault victims express the hope that with more men coming forward to tell their stories, the military brass will take the problem—an estimated 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in a single year, according to a recent Pentagon report—more seriously. Another reason that the generals and admirals have failed to prioritize the problem is that it’s seen as a “women’s problem,” and women comprise a mere 15 percent of the force, Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), told the Times.
With more men coming forward, she said, “I think it places the onus on the institution when people realize it’s also men who are victims.”
While that may be a sad fact of the way in which assaults on women are considered to be somehow less important, more troubling is this paragraph, from the same New York Times article, by James Dao:
Many sexual assaults on men in the military seem to be a form of violent hazing or bullying, said Roger Canaff, a former New York State prosecutor who helped train prosecutors on the subject of military sexual assault for the Pentagon. “The acts seemed less sexually motivated than humiliation or torture-motivated,” he said.
Note that this guy trains military prosecutors.
What are we to take from that? That assaults against women are the acts of lonely guys who are just looking for a little love? That the motivation for some of the horrendous attacks on women in the military by men, often of higher rank, has nothing to do with a desire to humiliate or torment the women?
Take the case of Navy veteran Trina McDonald, told in the documentary film The Invisible War, who says that in 1989 she was drugged, raped repeatedly, and even dumped in the Bering Sea after an assault. Sounds like something other than sexual motivation there.
Or that of Army veteran Ayana Harrell, who was drugged and gang-raped in 2001, and then, when she told her commanding officer that she was pregnant because of the attack, was told, she says, that it was her own problem.
More recently, there was the 2012 social-media humiliation of a female Navy midshipman who says she was raped by several Naval Academy football players after she passed out at a party.
And the assault last month of a civilian woman in a Virginia mall parking lot by the Air Force lieutenant who, at the time, led that service’s sexual assault prevention unit.
I don’t mean to suggest that sexual assaults sustained by military men are less important or less traumatizing than those endured by women. But I see in the offing an attempt to paint them as more so, and that’s deeply disturbing.
We’re told that men are left with the trauma of questioning their manhood, of not being believed by family members, of the humiliation of the assumption by many that they must have cooperated in some way with the assault. While it may be less likely for a woman to question her sexual identity as the result of an assault, she is usually left to question her own feminine virtue as construed by society, which is a torment unto itself. Each are different, and there’s no way that one sex can assess the other’s experience of sexual assault as particular to gender.
Likewise, no two sexual assaults are completely alike. Some are more brutal than others. But all are profoundly damaging to those who endure them.
I welcome airing the stories of the courageous men who are now coming forward to tell of how they were preyed upon by their brethren in the armed forces. My heart hurts for them, just as it hurts for all of the women who have endured such injustices. And if their coming forward puts more urgency into finally ending this scourge, that’s a good thing, and these men will have done a great service for servicemen and servicewomen alike.
But the framing of their stories must not be construed in such a way as to draw distinctions based on old tropes about the nature of sexual assaults against women, cementing the old saw about “boys being boys” when they prey on women, and something worse when they prey on men.
The military has a predator problem within its ranks—and a traitorous one at that. That the Senate Armed Services Committee, by rejecting Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, has chosen to leave the adjudication of these crimes within the chain of command that has allowed them to proliferate is a crime in itself. That the president has remained silent on the chain of command problem is disheartening.
If what it takes lawmakers to do their constitutional duty to protect America’s fighting men and women is the knowledge that roughly one in 100 men in the armed forces suffer sexual assault at the hands of their brother fighters—when, clearly, knowledge of the one in 17 military women who suffer the same didn’t do the trick—then so be it.
Until we get that straight, the road to women’s equality remains strewn with the obstacles sown by history’s purveyors of sex libel.