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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Column: Sexual assaults in the military deserve visibility

Ninety percent of survivors of sexual assault or rape are dishonorably discharged.

Rivu Dasgupta

March 12, 2014

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

Sociology has often taken upon itself the task of empirically illustrating a certain point: that women are intentional, capable and strong, if they so choose to be. It might have saved quite a bit of grant money and time if any of the 3 or so billion women were simply consulted themselves with a brief questionnaire, but regardless of the method, the following implication is made: Women are as capable as men, or conversely, men are as capable as women (Does that wording seem off to you? Patriarchy).

While it’s frustrating that the collective ability of half the Earth is so frequently brought into question, it does serve the laudable purpose of dispelling any misinformed notions of discrepancy in capability between genders. Not to mention, some of the research is decidedly powerful; for example, what better setting to test ability than the United States military?

A brilliant four-year study conducted by the Institute of Medicine concluded in a cursory 794 pages that there is “little evidence of gender differences in the impact of exposure to combat on mental health.” In other words, our men and women in uniform are indistinguishable in their handling of stress from combat.

Trigger warning for sexual assault and rape

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the significant finding from the report. On the contrary, the study unearthed a pernicious epidemic of sexual assaults in the United States military, with an astronomical increase in the incidence rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in both surviving men and women.

In the past 25 years, more than 500,000 people have been sexually assaulted or raped in the U.S. military, with a recent 50-percent increase from 2012 to 2013. A finding from the Pentagon reports that a soldier is “15 times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by an enemy.”

Unlike most forms of sexual violence, the intersection between sexual violence and gender is noticeably nonexistent. Indeed, as much as 45 percent of enlisted survivors of sexual violence are men, compared to the civilian rate of roughly 8 percent. That being said, women represent a paltry 15 percent of active-duty forces, while accounting for 47 percent of assaults and rape. The remaining 8 percent is unreported.

The militant culture of sexual violence isn’t limited to broad statistics and numbers, mind you; there are far more mephitic elements at play that make the violence all the more perverse. To state the obvious, rape in the U.S. military isn’t prosecuted in civilian courts. Instead, it’s handled through the military’s own judicial system. In one study, 43 percent of survivors mentioned that their aggressor was their ranking officer, and in a similar study, roughly 32 percent mentioned that the aggressor was close-friends with their ranking officer.

Similarly, the query “Who receives these reports of sexual violence?” arises, and as you might have guessed given the dystopian direction of the topic, it’s often someone whose best interest is pretending the sexual assault or rape didn’t happen.

Indeed, there are entire archives brimming with remarks like “Reporting a rape that happens under my jurisdiction is admitting to a failing on my part.” Moreover, if the perpetrator of the assault and/or rape is the same person to whom you have to report the violence, they will obviously show little interest in moving forward with the charges.

A relevant but tangential set of statistics: 80 percent of perpetrators (and those accused) of sexual assault or rape are honorably discharged, while 90 percent of survivors are dishonorably discharged. In case it isn’t clear, that means no benefits, compensation or aid for the group that is four times more likely to be homeless and nine times more likely to suffer from PTSD.

So while I'd love to start Women's History Month off with becoming narratives of triumph and subversion, I'm afraid that’s impossible in good conscience. As the above illustrates, sexual assault and rape in the military is a real but invisible issue, and it’s one that deserves far more than tacit dismissals and self-righteous inaction.

This column might come off to some as anti-military; it’s not. On the contrary, it’s anti-corruption: What can we as MU students do, then, to quell said corruption? First and foremost, there’s education. You can opt to validate the experiences of any survivors by offering visibility and acknowledgment to their experiences. Then, you can use your newfound enlightenment to be an active citizen and write letters to your senator or congressperson.

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