The Cancer of Sexual Assault in the Military

As long as sexual predators in the armed forces know the deck is stacked in their favor, they'll keep doing it.

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One wonders how, in the 21st century, we would still have a scandal of sexual abuse in the armed forces, with members of the military attacking and raping their own comrades – the same people they expect will have their backs in times of danger – and getting away with it because the victims are fearful of retaliation if they come forward. And even when the sexual predators are convicted, their sentences can be erased by a commander, as we have seen.

But just listen to the words of a U.S. senator and the backward thinking among some in the military doesn't seem so isolated. Said Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss:

The young people that are coming into your services are anything from 17 to 22 or –three. The hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

Chambliss did say sexual assault was intolerable. But how can the spate of sexual assault and rape in the military ever end if elected officials of Chambliss' level continue spouting the very offensive and antiquated lie that rape or sexual molestation is just a case of normal, healthy American boys unable to resist the charms of women?

This is the justification used to control women in so many ways. It is the lie behind the declaration that it is women's fault if they are raped, if they dressed or acted in a provocative manner. It is the lie that is used to tell women they need to stay indoors to be safe from potentially predatory men – as opposed to telling men they should stay indoors because they are more likely to be violent attackers. And it is the lie that is behind every pushback against female power in politics, in commerce and in combat – that women are somehow by nature destined to let the men run the show while they stay home and out of harm's way.

Rape isn't about hormones. It's about power and humiliation and control. There's a reason rape is used as a weapon in war, and it's not because the enemy soldiers have been away from their wives and girlfriends too long and are overcome by hormones.

Some senators at the Armed Services Committee meeting backed military officials in saying that rapists in the military should not be prosecuted in a criminal court (as opposed to a military court). Instead, they said, the "culture" needs to change in the military.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Of course it does. But addressing the issue that way is like trying to end wage and salary discrimination by saying we have to end the scourge of racism and sexism. Worthy goals, to be sure. They will only be achieved after many decades of social change – change which must include the in-your-face presence of women and minorities in positions of power.

You know what leads employers to avoid discriminating against people on the basis of gender or race? The threat of getting sued, that's what. And as long as attackers and rapists in the military know the deck is stacked in their favor, they'll keep doing it, hoping that women will finally give up and avoid a military career entirely.

That is, of course, the very point behind rape – to control. Or as Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, the armed services have "sexual predators who are not committing crimes of lust. This isn't about sex," but about "domination," she explained – and to a group that surely should not need something so basic explained to them.

Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., noted with some sadness that a woman came to him and said her daughter was considering a career in the military. Could McCain offer his unqualified support? "I could not," McCain said. He added, "I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We've been talking about the issue for years, and talk is insufficient."

He's right. But neither is avoiding the military the way for women to fight the cancer of sexual assault in the armed forces. There's one important lesson learned after 9-11: if you limit your own life and movements out of nothing other than fear, the terrorists win. Military women, of all people, should not let that happen.