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Gender, Power and Violence: Why are Sexual Assaults in U.S. Military So Pervasive?

By: Katelyn Six, Section Editor for Block Beat (six1@uic.edu)

A recent Pentagon survey on sexual abuse in the U.S. military determined that “26,000 service members were victims of sexual assault last year, based on the 6.1 percent of female and 1.2 percent of male respondents who claimed to have suffered such abuse.” This is cause for serious concern as sexual harassment, especially in the U.S. Armed Forces, is often considered a “women’s problem” when in reality, this is not the case. As data suggests, it is undeniably a men’s problem, a women’s problem, and everyone’s problem. Also reported is the horrid actuality that “of 2,280 cases where victims provided full accounts and evidence, only 317 cases were referred for courts-martial and 247 were referred for nonjudicial punishment.” This is particularly shocking because it signifies that even if you are victimized and do the right thing by reporting the abuse, the perpetrator has a large chance of not even facing judicial punishment.

An article titled, “The Roots of Sexual Abuse in the Military,” comes from Time Magazine and was published on May 17, 2013 by Pulitzer Prize-winner, Mark Thompson. As is evident from the title, the premise of the article surrounds the issue of sexual assaults, harassment and intimidation becoming increasingly more prevalent in the United States Armed Forces as a form of gendered power and violence. It opens with a story about Lieutenant Colonel Darin Haas, who was chief of the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention and Equal Opportunity program manager at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Recently he was removed from his position for stalking, intimidating and sexually battering his ex-wife. This has led General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, as well as the commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama, to take notice of an epidemic infiltrating the U.S. Military: sexual, gender-related abuses. Many soldiers are humiliated, objectified and sexually assaulted while serving in the armed forces, which makes them feel isolated, frightened, and with what most feel are limited resources to stop the sexual harassment and gendered power imbalances. In order to understand this issue more deeply, I will delve into some approaches to gender to serve as potential explanations for the predominance of sexual abuse in the U.S.Armed Forces.

First, the article asserts that there is “no quick fix” to alleviate this pressing problem, but provides some reasons to explain why sexual abuse is so pervasive in this arena. One explanation proposes that violence against female soldiers occurs so frequently because men are often in positions where they have considerable power over women and may feel threatened by the increasing number of female soldiers joining the military. Thompson says in the 2013 article, “differences in rank can compound the problem, as senior males used to issuing orders flex that command authority and take advantage of their power in their illicit dealings with female subordinates.”Another statistic found in a March 2013 NPR story titled, “Off the Battlefield, Military Women Face Risks from Male Troops” shows that “1 in 4 women who join the military will be sexually assaulted during their careers.”

Further, in alignment with a psychological approach to gender, seeing women in the military and fighting side-by-side with men in combat is a crucial part of breaking down gender barriers in order to become more gender-equal. This can be analyzed in terms of Social Learning Theory, which according to Julia Wood’s book titled, Gendered Lives, means that “individuals learn to be masculine and feminine primarily by intimidating others.” Hence, the more women we see serving in the armed forces, on the battlefield, and as commanding military officers, the greater the likelihood that young girls will imagine themselves in these same positions in this field, which is likely to lead to increased gender parity in the military arenas and a decrease in gender-related sexual crimes in the armed forces.

In my opinion, one of the most pervasive misconceptions about gender, power and violence is that only those who are actually committing the sexual assaults or making gender intimidating comments are the ones to blame for sexual violence against women and men in the armed forces; but the truth is the real abusers are the ones who see violence but are too afraid to question; the ones who witness acts of intimidation based on a person’s gender, but are wary to report it. More importantly, it is our senators, our military officials and the people in positions of political power who are mistreating the victims of these heinous sex-based crimes if they do not use their clout, their voice, and their vote to facilitate change.

Right now is a critical time for addressing the issue of sexual abuse within the military because “while women in uniform who have been abused remain leery of reporting it, that reticence is shrinking,” said Thompson. Why now? Females are gaining greater influence in Congress as women “currently occupy 78 of the House’s 435 seats, and 20 of the 100 Senate seats.” While women in Congress are still the minority, Thompson’s article assures that a turning point has been reached where there are enough female members to “no longer will be cowed into silence,” and can make significant strides to put an end to this form of violence in the military in the future.

However, not every female political player agrees that this issue is a direct threat to gender equality. In a New York Times article published on June 14, 2013, the author, Jennifer Steinhauer, includes a quote by Senator Deb Fischer, who is a Republican of Nebraska. “I think all of us need to acknowledge that this isn’t a gender issue,” said the senator at a hearing. I disagree with this statement because I believe gender power imbalances and gender-related inequities play a large part in the violent acts and sexual assaults committed within the U.S. military. The fact that this female senator felt compelled to disregard gender as a significant factor in the sexual abuse epidemic happening within the military may be a result of her feeling like an outsider in the political arena which is still dominated by men. Perhaps, to gain the trust of her colleagues and to be taken seriously, she may have felt it necessary to disregard gender in this instance to not be perceived as a radical feminist.

So the bottom line is this: Do you care? Well, you should. This is not a distant problem; it is a present danger. The issues surrounding gendered power imbalances associated with violence will not disappear overnight. Whether or not you believe women should be allowed to fight in combat is not the issue at hand. Instead, this is about protecting the right to feel safe in the workplace, because for the brave people serving in the armed forces the battlefield is their workplace, this is about the right to be treated with respect and dignity from co-workers; it’s a human rights issue. I agree with many of the points made in Thompson’s article, for instance, that we need to increase awareness about sexual violence in our military. However, I strongly disagree with the final statement made at the end of the Time Magazine article that comments on President Obama’s remark about making the fight against sexual abuse a “primary mission.” Thompson’s comment was that if the military makes combatting sexual violence an important issue, “It means the military’s ‘primary mission’ will no longer be preparing to wage, and win, the nation’s wars,” Thompson said. This is not only a strikingly horrific approach because it negates the salience of tragic abuses both women and men face while serving in the military, but it is comments like this one that prevent much-needed change in gendered violence cases.    

By taking the personal and often heartbreaking stories of soldiers who have been assaulted or faced other forms of gender-based inequities that have led to violence, it is shining light on the veracity that this is not an isolated situation, but rather this is everyone’s problem. I envision a future where sexual assaults will be fearlessly reported one hundred percent of the time so that victims of this abuse do not have to cower in a shroud of silence any longer. 

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