ROLICHECK: Sexual assault in military worse than thought

June 29, 2013 

The seemingly new issue of sexual assault in the military has been grabbing headlines lately. We've learned that reports of sexual assault are rising at the same time high-ranking officials charged with helping to solve the problem are making personal contributions to the climbing statistics.

The sad reality is that rampant sexual abuse and harassment in the armed forces is not new. As a woman who has served in the military and more recently worked serving sexual assault victims, I feel I have a somewhat unique perspective on this topic.

By its very nature, military culture supports sexual violence and harassment. The military mission and structure are based on a power hierarchy and the control of those under one's command.

Drill sergeants and others teach recruits from day one to always obey orders and never question authority. Recruits hear over and over that they are "not paid to think, but to obey." When ranking enlisted personnel or officers tell you to do something, you do it without hesitation.

While this might be an effective strategy when on the battlefield or engaged in field exercises, it contradicts a culture of equality, mutual respect and open dialogue needed to curb sexual assault and harassment. Compounding the problem is the cloak of secrecy around the armed forces. Many maintain the problem is not as bad as it has been depicted and should be handled internally.

I believe the problem is much worse than it has been portrayed, and to continue to let it be handled internally would be a huge mistake. There is no question that doing things the way they have always been done has not worked; it is time for a new approach.

Military leaders have resisted the effort to remove charging and prosecuting sexual assault suspects from commanders. The argument that it would undermine the authority of ranking officers and affect unit cohesion has been made by officials in all military branches. They don't acknowledge the fear of retaliation against those who report, the tendency of others to not believe the victim or the possibility that commanders could be perpetrators.

Victims of sexual assault must feel trust and support from the person to whom they report or they will remain silent. By removing these decisions from interested parties and placing them in the hands of objective outsiders, we remove a significant barrier to reporting.

Thus far, the focus has been on violent sexual assaults and how to handle these crimes. Missing is the acknowledgment of the pervasive culture of sexism and control at the root of the issue.

We know sexual assault is rooted in the need for power and control over another, and that sex is the weapon. We know that sexual harassment and domestic violence are also part of a continuum of violence perpetrated largely against women. Nowhere is that power, control and violence greater than in the armed forces.

While not every woman who enlists in the military is sexually assaulted, virtually all of them will experience sexual misconduct, whether ogling and sexist comments, other forms of sexual harassment or sexual assault. I don't believe military officials truly understand the depth and breadth of the problem. While I applaud their efforts to address sexual assault, if there was more effort to change the culture of sexism in the military, the problem would largely solve itself.

The prosecution of offenders is a small part of the solution, but equalizing the numbers of women and men in positions of authority, allowing women full access to all military opportunities, including combat positions, and giving women real equality in the military has to happen before the problem will truly be solved.

Rolicheck is the executive director of Haven Women's Center of Stanislaus, which offers services to victims of domestic abuse. She served in the U.S. Army from 1983-85.

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