Why Aren't We Still Talking About Sexual Assault in the Armed Services?
Seriously, why is this not part of the national discussion anymore?
No, not because Trump sucked the oxygen out of every discussion that wasn’t about Trump. This issue faded into the background years ago — and for the life of me I can’t understand why.
I believe that maladaptive, morally indefensible but culturally and structurally embedded behaviors do not simply go away when new polices are implemented and leaders say to stop.
Rather they are driven further underground.
Perpetrators become more adept at disguising abusive behavior. It becomes more subtle in some cases or more ‘sophisticated’ ways to hide it emerge.
As the recent revelations (and I use this word facetiously because it would shock me if it wasn’t an open secret on the installation) of a culture of sexual violence at Fort Hood demonstrate that despite new policies being implemented in all of the services — there are pockets where it is apparent, no changes have occurred whatsoever.
Sexual violence, harassment and misogyny continue almost unchecked.
Sexual Assault (of all genders), Sexual Harassment and misogyny unquestionably undermine unit cohesion and effectiveness and strip the services of the moral high ground that many assign to the military.
It also ruins lives, tears families apart and permanently damages people who have volunteered to serve.
Who among us wants to send a child into this mess?
Who finds the lack of discussion and failure of the service leaders to substantially reduce (the goal should be to eliminate) the problem acceptable?
Who feels the problem is resolved and that military culture has changed?
We are deluding ourselves if we believe there has been real change.
My intent is not to present a bunch of statistics — anyone can find those online ( DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response) . Rather I want to (in my own small way) elevate this topic to its rightful place in the national discussion.
January 20, 2020 — the day I began the essay — seemed a fitting day to re-start this discussion and to find a way to address the embedded, systemic and cultural bias that permits sexual violence and harassment to persist in the all of the military services.
Suffice to say that while overall reporting of sexual violence by its victims is up slightly year over year:
Sexual violence has increased by a factor of four between 2016 and 2018. 4X!
Retaliation for reporting sexual violence is at epidemic levels — more than half of those who reported claimed they were retaliated against.
A majority of reports of sexual violence were made against people in the victim’s chain of command. Think about this and the role of power in sexual violence and harassment.
Faith in the military’s ability and will to deal with sexual violence and harassment remains (justifiably from my perspective) low.
I wish I had an answer. I don’t — but I have some suspicions.
I spent 25 years as a Coast Guard officer, my final years as a Commanding Officer. I did my best as a leader — and I saw the same from the vast majority of Coast Guard leaders, but here are some observations:
1. As much as I tried to create a safe environment for ALL members of my command, as a white male officer, I completely lacked the perspective to understand the nature of service for women, minorities, enlisted service members and for those assigned to small units.
I thought that through leadership (mine in this case), I could create a healthy and safe environment for everyone — but that misses the point. In an organization led (largely) by white men, with policies formed (largely) by white men and centuries of structurally embedded norms developed by white men anyone not of this demographic doesn’t stand a chance and it was naïve of me to think I could understand in any significant way the plight of my subordinates.
2. Men are assaulted too. Shouldn’t I have been able to empathize here? I am a man. I have the experience to understand how this could happen and how to stop it, right? Wrong. Never having been threatened myself, I lacked the insight, wisdom and empathy required to understand this part of the problem.
In fact, sexual violence against men in the military is even harder to bring to the surface. How comfortable is a man in admitting he has been assaulted in a male dominated institution, where ego and bravado, toughness and masculinity reign supreme? Not very comfortable.
Senior leaders want to fix the problems — really — but fail to give it the attention it warrants and utterly lack the tools and understanding necessary to effect the structural changes necessary to do so.
Here are some additional observations based on my experience:
1. Sexual violence and harassment get attention when the public and their elected representatives force the issue through public discussion and pressure on service chiefs.
2. Military leaders address the issue when public opinion and elected officials put heat on them to do so.
3. When the heat is off — military leaders move on to other issues.
4. Too often the solutions implemented by senior military leaders — mostly older white men — amount to little more than new policies, new internal bureaucracies to “deal” with the issue and coercion (nothing frightens a military officer more than the threat of a being removed from a position or a bad fitness report).
At best policy solutions nibble at the edges of the problem — they do little to correct it.
Moreover, leaders lack the experience and perspective of the people they are trying to help and the problem they are trying to solve. This is a recipe for failure unless those leaders have substantial self-awareness and genuine input from people who have been victimized.
Yet these older white males, who depend on sheaves of statistics, and marginal input from relatively powerless “diverse” members of the military are the people creating, approving and implementing the so-called solutions.
Expectedly, the solutions implemented in the services thus far have at best created minor improvements in some areas — restricted and unrestricted reporting for example. At worst predators have simply adapted to the changes and found different ways to ruin the lives of others.
1. Structural Change is Essential.
There needs to be fundamental reform and structural change to idea of military good order and discipline as put forth in the dated Uniform Code of Military Justice. A system designed and implemented almost exclusively by white men will implicitly AND explicitly benefit white men and implicitly miss the mark on all others — as the designers have no idea what rules work for all and what rules work for some.
Effective polices and procedures can only emerge from a structure that evens the playing field for all genders and all races. This obviously requires far more discussion and I am not giving it it’s due here — but it is number 1 on my list for a reason.
2. Cultural Change is also Essential.
We cannot allow rampant ego, misogyny, and patriarchy to maintain its primacy in the military. I will be the first to acknowledge that some improvements have occurred during the last several decades — but the services still retain a culture more akin to 1955 than 2021.
3. More women, transgender and people of color must be elevated to senior leadership positions.
4. Revisit military regulations, rules and mores that are both outdated and unhelpful such as the prohibition on fraternization.
Enlisted members and officers are prohibited from engaging in intimate relationships which drives the relationships that do occur (and they do) underground — not necessarily a direct contributor to the problem, but certainly an example of how outdated many of regulations governing the services have become.
5. Accountability — stop victimizing victims. “Alcohol Incidents” are treated harshly in the military.
A crime (DUI, sexual assault, etc) committed while one or both (to include the victim) of the parties has consumed alcohol can end a career. Does this inhibit reporting? Yes.
Will ensuring a level of protection for the victim to encourage reporting help? I think so.
Will, on rare occasions, someone fabricate a report to avoid being held accountable for another infraction occur? Possibly, but in my view this will be so rare that it is worth the benefit of ensuring victims are protected from career ending peripheral violations.
4. Military Leaders must give the problem more attention and not simply delegate it to a new directorate created to deal with the problem.
5. The public and public servants must put consistent and relentless pressure on military leaders to acknowledge and deal with the problem.
6. Perpetrators — particularly those who abuse positions of power — must consistently suffer real consequences — removal from the service, bad conduct discharges and criminal prosecution.
7. Retaliation must end. Period. This is a leadership issue. Leaders who retaliate — even if not the perpetrator of violence — must be removed from their positions if not the service too.
This is my military and your military. Let’s pressure service leaders to step up and be relentless about it.