Getting the Signals in our Invisible War

Invisible WarIf you’ve watched “The Invisible War” and were unmoved — get therapy. If you’ve read the recent New York Times article about sexual assaults against men in the military and are still unconvinced the issue of sexual assault is a minor priority for our Armed Forces  — think again.

In its latest report on sexual assault, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. Of those cases, the Pentagon says, 53 percent involved attacks on men, mostly by other men. [NYT]

If you’ve thought we could reduce the issues to one or two buzzwords, for example “it’s cultural,” or “it’s power and dehumanization” that’s also missing some of the more nuanced topics intrinsic in the matrix.

Whether the incidents of criminal behavior are an example of outright rape, a hazing gone terribly wrong, or somewhere on the continuum of disgusting human decisions from A to B, they illustrate the complexity of the problem for both the military and civilian authorities.

Simplifying, and over-simplifying, the issue insures only that we’re avoiding real solutions while seeking quick fixes.   Some quarters are anxious to apply the Quick Fix which best fits with their religious or ideological agendas.

One such Quick Fix suggestion comes from the radical right which protests that the demise of DADT and the adoption of an alleged “homosexual agenda” is the cause of sexual assaults in the Armed Forces.   Even a nano-second of rational thought would dispel this bit of ideological mythology —  rapes are not related to homosexual or heterosexual activity.  Again, rape isn’t about intimacy; it’s simply assault and battery with another weapon.  []  The average age of a rapist in the overall population is 31 years, 52% of rapists are white, and 84% of rape victims report no weapon — just physical force — was used to perpetrate the crime. [RAINN]

Another Quick Fix comes from the “Little Woman” School of Ideological Thought.  See, sayeth the apologists for male miscreants, if there were no women in the military there would be no problem. Once more, take a nano-second to digest this ridiculousness.  The military would still have a “53% problem” if there were no women in the picture.  If the Quick Fix Ideologues are dismissed from sentient considerations, there’s a better chance of having some rational discourse.

If we’re looking for solutions to the military facet of the sexual assault problem, then we might want to start at the beginning.  As of 2010 the U.S. Navy’s policy on moral waivers left the decision to initiate a “moral waiver request” to the CNRC (Commander, Navy Recruiting Command) for major misconduct, including sexual assaults if there were “2 juvenile major misconduct offenses or a combination of 1 adult and 1 juvenile major misconduct.”  Zero might be an option?

Budget cuts and the reduction in military personnel needs after the windup of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq may further reduce the “incoming” problems.  “In 2006, about 20 percent of new Army recruits came in under some type of waiver, and by the next year it had grown to nearly three in 10. After the Defense Department issued new guidelines, the percentage needing waivers started to come down in 2009.” [ArmyTimes] Most of the waivers for sexually categorized offenses were granted for incidents of consensual intercourse in which one of the participants was a juvenile.  Zero would still be nice.

There’s a problem with the second step.  Common sense might dictate that if a person has committed a rape or other form of sexual assault while in military service the chances the individual will be allowed to re-enlist are diminished and therefore the “problem” will be passed back into the civilian population.

The Army, in an internal slide presentation, is blunt: “Re-enlistment is a privilege, not a right; some ‘fully qualified’ soldiers will be denied re-enlistment due to force realignment requirements and reductions in end strength.”

In a memo earlier this year, Army Secretary John McHugh laid out more stringent criteria for denying re-enlistment, including rules that would turn away soldiers who have gotten a letter of reprimand for a recent incident involving the use of drugs or alcohol, or some soldiers who were unable to qualify for a promotion list. [Army Times 2012]

The good news might be that some who are not “qualified for promotion” because of sexual misconduct will be out of the service, the bad news is that they’re back on Main Street.  There’s worse news to come — most of the sexual misconduct cases in the military aren’t adjudicated:

Military Sexual Assault CasesThe numbers are unpleasant reading. The odds against prosecution are in the perpetrator’s favor.   The non-prosecution of sexual assaults is a lose-lose proposition, neither the military or civilian segments of our population are well served by the current system.

We’re in thornier territory when considering how to prevent the necessity of sexual assault prosecutions in the Armed Forces.  Severely limited waivers might be a start, but it’s not the answer. Neither can we trust re-enlistment curbs to provide a substantial solution.

We do know one thing about criminal behavior.    “Research to date generally indicates that increases in the certainty of punishment, as opposed to the severity of punishment, are more likely to produce deterrent benefits.” [TSP pdf]  It’s the CERTAINTY of punishment, not necessarily the severity of the punishment which reduces criminal actions.   Now, review those statistics in the graphic above one more time — what is happening to the Certainty Principle?

If those who engage in sexual assaults in a military context are convinced that the statistics are on “their side,” and they will in all likelihood NOT be prosecuted for their criminal behavior then we can logically expect — no matter how forceful the rhetoric or severe the penalties — there will be no significant reduction in the incidents.

Now we’ve come to a truly disconcerting state of affairs.  If the assaulter comes to believe that little can or will be done to prevent his or her egregious behavior, and the certainty of punishment is diminished, then we can only expect the assaults to continue, in military or civilian life.   The sensible way to break this cycle is to insure that punishment is certain, in both contexts.

No more “boys will be boys” from either unit commanders or from judges anxious that a perpetrator should not be burdened with a “record” at a relatively early age.  No more “she was asking for it by walking home from work unchaperoned.”   No more “You have to question whether the girl was ‘just saying it’ because he dumped her,” when only about 2% of all rape accusations are demonstrably false.  [Stanford edu]  No more “He (or she) just didn’t get the signals.”  Most people in intimate relationships are fully aware of their partners’ “signals.”   There might be some helpful signals.

Signal One:  Rape and sexual assaults are not sex crimes.  Those  actions are all about dominance and power.  Dominance and power used to gratify immediate wants — not needs.  The number of married individuals who commit rapes should be sufficient proof that passion has precious little to do with the assault; the persons quite often have consensual relations with willing partners, thus there is no need for rape.

Signal Two: Sexual assaults resulting from hazing or bullying are still sexual assaults.  Again, the narrative is all about power and dominance.  Granted women are the most obvious target for male predators because of their assumed less powerful status, but the assaults on young men in the military would seem to support the assertion that if male superiority is underpinned by acts of domination and displays of physical power then we’ve laid the foundation for assaults on vulnerable young men.   Apologists for male bullies appear to have adopted the premise that any restrictions levied on a young man’s physical behavior with regard to hazing and bullying  constitute a diminishing  of his “manhood.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  [TRC]

Signal Three: Blaming the victim is unacceptable.  Whether the attempt at justification incorporates the “he (or she) was asking for it” line or “it was just kid stuff” or  the victim should “man up and be quiet about it,” the signal should be the same. A rape is a rape is a rape, and sexual assault is sexual assault — and those behaviors are criminal.

Once we decide that rape is really a crime, and not, for example, an evening gone awry, then the need for further research into the issue is obvious.  In part because rape prosecutions are relatively rare in both military and civilian courts the data is necessarily scanty and current research results should be handled with caution.  [Yale edu]

Signal Four: There is no ‘rape culture.’   In fact, rape and other forms of sexual assault are antithetical to American culture.  There is no acceptance of sexual assault in American society, if by this we are talking about shared customs, laws, and institutions.  Neither western culture nor American social norms tolerate the deviance on display in sexual assaults.  A person wouldn’t be too far out on the clichéd limb arguing that a powerful motivation for ‘supporting the accused’ comes from the knowledge that conviction in court, or in the court of public opinion, of sexually related offenses means the rapist is marked for certain shame.   Asserting that an individual’s abusive and criminal behavior is part of a wider set of shared values only serves to dilute the personal responsibility which should attach to the rapist or abuser.

Signal Five: Outliers are not evidence. There is a small but vocal minority opinion in this country that bullying ought not to be “demonized” lest it interfere with the development of masculine personalities.  Some of the same voices argue for the myths given above concerning the ‘homosexual agenda’ and the proponents of the Little Women School of Masculine Domination; however, these should register for what they are — radical elements unrepresentative of this nation’s mores and values.  While they make interesting headlines and generate cable news commentary they should not be taken as seriously as some of the punditry appear to assume them to be.   Most Americans understand that women’s vaginas do not magically  ‘shut down’ when confronted by a rapist’s sperm. Most Americans understand that rape is rape, and there is no such thing as a “legitimate rape.”  Most Americans understand that bullying is unacceptable and don’t want their children subjected to it, nor do they want their offspring doing it.

Perhaps when we make these five signals clear to those in authority — in both military and civilian realms — we truly can be, in the Army’s terms — All We Can Be.

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