Sexual assault in the military is not just a women’s issue.
When people think of sexual assault, most would probably assume that it is in reference to a man perpetrating an act of violence on a woman. And some people seem to believe that the presence of women in the military in a greater scope is what is fueling the rise in sexual assault cases.
So how does that account for the report that 53% of the victims of sexual assault in the military are men? And that most of these attacks are by other men?
According to the New York times, there were approximately 26,000 victims of sexual assault in 2012. That would be almost 14,000 men.
Part of the problem lies in what people consider sexual assault. While the obvious issue of rape is a concern, a lot of what happens is more sexually themed violence or intimidation that has nothing to do with a sexual act. Also, the perpetrators overwhelmingly identify themselves as heterosexual.
So where is all this sexually themed violence originating?
I remember when I was in the Navy, there was a lot of rough behavior that could fall under the general category of hazing. Derogatory names such as “boot” (meaning you were fresh out of boot camp and therefore knew little of nothing) were thrown around a lot. When you were being trained by someone to do a job, you were often referred to as so-and-so’s “bitch”. Sometimes minor forms of “behavioral adjustment” were applied. If you have seen Full Metal Jacket, you probably remember the scene where the company exacts revenge on Private Pyle. I never witnessed anything that violent in my time in service, but there were incidents that were similar.
To blow off steam, there was also a lot of vulgar humor thrown around. Comments like “How’s your wife and my kids doing?” were not uncommon. Sometimes things would even drift into the realm of homophobic comments like calling someone a “fag”. And just as often it would be turned around with a response such as “You wish.”
So when you are used to crude, vulgar, and sometimes even mildly violent behavior as a matter of day to day working and living in a military culture, it is very hard to determine when a line actually gets crossed. Obviously, when behavior is unwelcome or unwanted it is out of bounds. But when so many inappropriate behaviors are considered a “joke”, things can get really out of hand before anyone realizes lines have been crossed. And trying to report an offense in such a crude culture can be very daunting.
I do not mean to defend sexually violent behavior. And I don’t want to give the picture that every sailor in the US Navy is a vulgar homophobic Neanderthal. I am merely setting the scene for how these behaviors seem to get ignored and why reporting and punishing these behaviors is so difficult.
The best way to separate “horseplay” from assault would really be to look at what is behind the behavior. A lot of times, sexual assault is not about sex at all but really a power play through humiliation and intimidation. Whatever the motivation, the attacker has some desire to demean the victim. Unwanted groping, sexually demeaning insults, even forcing someone into a fake sexual position are considered to be sexual assault.
I have mentioned in a previous post how there were numerous training sessions about how male military members were to act toward women and what lines not to cross. Perhaps the training should have been more inclusive, saying there are certain ways you should not treat ANY service member.
I don’t know what the answer to stopping sexual assault in the military will be. This issue doesn’t really have a cure all or magic bullet. One thing that has to happen is a frank and open conversation. Falling back on tired old misogynistic arguments like the mere proximity of a woman makes men misbehave is ridiculous. If it were that simple, there wouldn’t have been almost 14,000 male service members assaulted by other males in 2012.