In Tahrir Square and the Pentagon: Sexual assault exposed

In Tahrir Square and the Pentagon: Sexual assault exposed

When one woman made a mistake at work, her boss called her a "stupid fucking female" and spit in her face. She was later stalked, sexually harassed, and raped. Another woman got drunk with her coworker, who was her superior, when he raped her. She spent the next two years forced to continue working with him; her work assignments were downgraded because she took medication to cope with the trauma of the ordeal. A third woman was sexually harassed by a supervisor and raped by a coworker. When she sought help from her workplace’s chaplain, she was told that "it must have been God’s will for her to be raped" and was recommended to attend church more often.

Where do these women work?: The U.S. military.

These are the stories of some of the plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed in an Eastern Virginia federal court yesterday against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. The litigants are current and veteran service members, 15 women and two men, and they charge that, even twenty years after the landmark Tailhook case, the military has allowed a dangerous culture of rape and sexual abuse to proliferate. Specifically, Gates and Rumsfeld are charged with running "institutions in which perpetrators were promoted; …in which Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subject to retaliation…and ordered to keep quiet."

Since 2005, when Congress mandated that the Defense Department create a task force on military sexual assault, other similar efforts have attempted to do something about this increasingly egregious problem.  Last March, the Pentagon released the latest Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military  which showed an 11 percent increase in reports of sexual assault in the military during fiscal year 2009 (equivalent to one-third of female service members reporting sexual violence). The Pentagon even says that reported incidents probably represent only 20 percent of those that actually occur.

While sexual assault in the military carries its own unique implications — a particularly high-stress workplace environment, a traditionally male-dominated work culture, a strict mandate to follow superiors’ orders, among much else — the military is not the only workplace where women (and men) are assaulted. According to one statistic, one out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And, on average, 36,500 incidents of rape and sexual assault happen annually in the workplace.

This year, that number unfortunately includes Lara Logan. The CBS news correspondent is recovering in an American hospital after being sexually assaulted and beaten by a mob in Tahrir Square last Friday. The media firestorm surrounding Logan’s ordeal ranges well into the vulgar. As Jezebel points out, "media outlets are clamoring to respond — in the most offensive way possible" detailing Logan’s looks, sex life, and past experience reporting from war zones and other dangerous places, implying that she had it coming.

Today, journalist Nir Rosen (who has written for FP) resigned from his fellowship position at New York University’s Center on Law and Security after some heavy backlash to his critical tweets of Logan, including "Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger."  On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Debbie Sclussel, an extreme right-wing commentator, wrote that Logan "should have known what Islam is all about."

Sadly, the "Muslims did it" argument has found its way into the mainstream. Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post noted that Egypt is a place where women "are not free to pass through the street without being groped and catcalled." The Daily Beast, today, ran a piece titled "Egypt: Unsafe for Women." Even film critic Roger Ebert joined the debate, tweeting: "The attack on Lara Logan brings Middle East attitudes toward women into sad focus."

While the statistics on women’s experiences in Egypt are terrible and alarming — 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women visitors have experienced harassment — Egyptian culture is by no means the only one where rape, sexual assault, and harassment are embedded and pervasive.

Sadly, Logan’s story is not an isolated event: Not isolated to an attractive foreign reporter pursuing a story, not isolated to those 18 days in Tahrir, not isolated to broader Egyptian culture, not isolated to the experience of women in every country around the world. Yet the way this incident has been explained in popular media — as a result of Logan’s looks, her job, and the unique cultural environment in which she was working — reduces Logan’s experience into a singular, rather than societal, problem.

Perhaps the most unique thing about these cases is that they are so public. As we can see in the cases of the 17 service members suing the Pentagon, and the countless others who remain silent, sexual violence in the workplace (and everywhere else) is notable not for its rarity but for the stigma and difficulties attached with reporting it.