Micah Zenko

Our Military, Ourselves

Why Americans are to blame for the Pentagon's outrageous sex scandals.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for USO Metropolitan New York
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for USO Metropolitan New York

Ongoing rampant sexual assault within America’s armed forces is a tragedy. The 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA) found that an estimated 26,000 active-duty servicemembers were sexually assaulted last year, and recent allegations of sexual assault by officers assigned to prevent that very crime have lent the situation a sinister irony. The U.S. military is clearly facing, in the words of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, “a crisis.”

Last week, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, declared that confronting the problem was his “No. 1 priority.” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno went further, saying: “The Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment.” He said that fighting the crime is now “our primary mission.” Repeating the claims of his two predecessors, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed to solve the chronic problem of sexual assault and stated that “every option is on the table.”

The estimated incidents of “unwanted sexual contact” within the military have increased since the previous survey in 2010 despite internal reforms. When reviewing the Pentagon and service websites dedicated to preventing sexual assault, it is difficult to comprehend the vast number of new directives, memoranda, instructions, policies, and awareness-raising campaigns that have been introduced over the past three years — none of which seems to be having an effect. Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, referred to these efforts as “half-hearted, half-measured reform Band-Aids.”

Unfortunately, however admirable the recent condemnations of sexual assault in the military, they’re unlikely to have much impact, because sexual assault in the military is not a military problem. It is an American problem. Scholars, retired officers, and others have longed warned of the creeping militarization of American society. However, as the Pentagon yet again renews its sexual assault prevention efforts, it must not discount the socialization of the American military.

The data suggest that one servicemember is sexually assaulted every 20 minutes and that one American citizen is sexually assaulted every two minutes, but it is difficult to directly compare military and civilian sexual assault rates. The WGRA defines “unwanted sexual contact” as “completed or attempted sexual intercourse, sodomy (oral or anal sex), penetration by an object, and the unwanted touching of genitalia and other sexually-related areas of the body.” Survey participants were asked to report incidents occurring in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice survey used to calculate sexual assaults nationwide asks participants if anyone has “attacked” or “threatened” them by “grabbing, punching, or choking” or by “any rape, attempted rape or other type of sexual act” over the course of the past six months. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent survey on the nationwide prevalence of sexual violence, 5.3 percent of English- and/or Spanish-speaking American women age 18 and older, who were not institutionalized or in the armed forces, were victims of unwanted sexual contact, including rape and other acts of sexual violence, in 2010. An estimated 4.9 percent of men experienced forms of sexual violence other than rape. (Unfortunately, the sample population of males reported too few incidents of rape for an estimate to be determined, which may allude to a low reporting rate rather than a low incident rate.)

Although sexual violence has decreased nationwide over the past two decades, that downward trend cannot be taken for granted because we do not know why it happened. And, regardless, the number of incidents remains shockingly high. Within the military, 6.1 percent of female servicemembers and 1.2 percent of male servicemembers reported unwanted sexual contact in 2012. The prevalence of sexual assault within the ranks is a snapshot of the crisis facing the United States, where “13% of women and 6% of men are sexually coerced in their lifetimes,” according to the CDC.

Military officials’ attempts to blame the crisis on American society have understandably been clumsy. During a May 7 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gen. Welsh attributed the rates of sexual assault in the military, in part, to the “hookup mentality of junior high.” He later apologized for the remark, noting that he wished he had taken more time to explain himself. He added: “We have to get at instilling from the day people walk in the door in our Air Force this idea of respect, inclusion, diversity, and value of every individual.”

But Welsh had a good point: No one who enters the military does so with a blank slate. All servicemembers have at least 17 years of cultural experience prior to signing up. One need only flip through a few channels on cable television or spend a few moments surfing the Internet to understand, as Tom Vanden Brook and Gregg Zoroya noted in a recent article, that male servicemembers (who make up 85 percent of the military) are drawn from a society in which “violence and objectification of women are staple elements.”

American women are born into a society in which the “importance” of beauty and sexuality is emphasized in their personal and professional lives. Despite great achievements in gender equality, sexism persists in the United States and frequently goes unnoticed because it is so deeply engrained in our culture. “It seems to be increasingly difficult to talk about sexism, equality and women’s rights in a modern society that perceives itself to have achieved gender equality,” writes Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which uses social media to measure sexism faced by women. In truth, the United States remains far from gender equality: last year, it was ranked 42nd on the Gender Inequality Index, which quantifies and analyzes reproductive health, political and educational empowerment, and participation in the labor force.

Despite progress in many areas, American culture remains bluntly sexist — and has become increasingly sexualized. The Disney princess movies, which are still a childhood staple of most American girls, convey that beauty and sexuality are key to “happily ever after.” The music industry is no different. A 2012 study by Cynthia Frisby and Jennifer Aubrey found that female artists are increasingly using sexual imagery to brand their products and that “young audiences may interpret these sexually objectifying images as important ways to be seen as attractive and valuable to society.” Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls, wrote that, as a result, women are confusing sexual objectification with empowerment. Of course, men also face daunting social expectations to be powerful, strong, and “manly.”

Sexism is also evident in more glaring forms. Just this past weekend, radio host Pete Santilli casually remarked that Hillary Clinton should be “shot in the vagina” — vulgar, gender-based language that belittled and threatened the former secretary of state. In a similar instance just over a year ago, Rush Limbaugh proudly referred to Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, as a “slut” and a “prostitute” because she believed that health insurance companies should cover the cost of contraceptives.

Current and retired military officers should openly and repeatedly condemn sexism and the attendant pervasiveness of sexual assaults within society, just as they often warn about societal trends that negatively impact the ability to recruit, train, and equip the force. That’s what they did with high school graduation rates and obesity — see the 2012 “Too Fat to Fight” study. If a lack of education or fitness can be categorized as threats to our national security, then surely sexual violence should qualify as well.

Last week, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated: “It is, in my opinion, and I believe the secretary’s position, not good enough to compare us to the rest of society. This is the United States military and the Department of Defense. It really doesn’t matter if our rates are similar to the rest of society, quite frankly. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard and that’s what the American people demand.” That may be so, but how can the issue be effectively addressed without improving standards throughout society?

If you spend any time at a post or base — much less a reserve depot or National Guard armory — you realize that the military is neither isolated nor insulated from American society, nor should it be. Addressing this sexual assault crisis as solely a military problem would merely place another Band-Aid on a national wound; success will elude even the most comprehensive military reforms. If policymakers and military officials wish to stand by their commitments to eradicate the culture of sexual violence in the military, they must confront its root cause.

On Friday, Hagel proclaimed: “We all have committed to turn this around, and we’re going to fix the problem….The problem will be solved here in this institution.” No, Mr. Secretary, it won’t.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

Amelia Mae Wolf is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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