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A Young Naval Officer Takes On The Leadership Issues Driving The Military's Sexual Assault Problem
Note From The Editor: The following thoughts are from Ensign John Williamson, a 2013 graduate of the Naval Academy. John is currently attending medical school at Mount Sinai in New York City before beginning a career as a doctor in the U.S. Navy.
I graduated from one of our nation’s service academies last May. I come from a family with a tradition of service in the Army, with three close relatives on active duty and forebears that served in every conflict since the Spanish-American War. I assume that my family’s service goes back farther than that, but don’t have any knowledge of the men in the family before that.
My own military experience consists of four years at a service academy. Some would say that means I have no experience with the real military, and to a certain extent I wouldn’t argue with that. My experience with the active component of the military is limited to summer training blocks, childhood experiences on Army bases, my Dad’s stories, and my own readings and word of mouth. On the other hand, many consider the service academies to be microcosms of the military, schools where the majority of future admirals and generals are trained in the most fundamental military skills – the chain of command, strict adherence to a code, peer and group leadership, and the simple culture of military life. In addition, much of the debate surrounding sexual assault in the military has been focused on the service academies. So their role, and my experience at one, becomes arguably more relevant. I am writing this article because I think I have a voice that is only represented deep in the comment sections of articles written usually by either social justice activists or military defenders.
The first argument I want to address is if there is a problem of sexual assault at all. Numbers can be used deceptively, and few numbers jump off the page like 26,000 sexual assaults in one year. Not to say that isn’t a huge and terrible number, but context always has value. In this case, some saw fit to apply context to that number in a way that is also arguably deceptive – putting 26,000 over the number of people in the military makes the rate of sexual assault seem much more acceptable (not that any amount of sexual assault is). Comparisons of the rate of sexual assault in the military to certain sectors of society – specifically to college populations – show that they are fairly similar. While this is a completely accurate observation, it absolutely does not mean there is no problem.
The argument falls flat most obviously because college populations also have a huge problem with sexual assault – binge drinking, rape culture, for-profit sports and other factors combine to make the american college party scene a dangerous place for an 18-year-old. To argue that being in the military makes you about as likely to be assaulted sexually as someone in college is actually to argue that being in the military is very dangerous indeed, and thinking otherwise exposes simple ignorance of the problem of rape in college campuses.
But even if there wasn’t an epidemic of sexual assault among college-aged Americans, comparing that population to the military would still be disingenuous. Taking into account the high standard of entrants to the military; the general goal of the military to have its members seen as trusted, responsible citizens, the restrictive nature of the UCMJ; and in general the high level of control that the military exerts over its members, the rate of military sexual assault should reasonably be expected to be far lower than in a comparable civilian population. We see this with lower rates of non-sexual assault violent crimes. The fact that sexual assault occurs at roughly the same rate as the college population, and at a higher rate than the general civilian population, indicates there there is something fundamentally wrong with how the military prevents and punishes sexual assault.
I’m not going to address arguments that say anonymous surveys can be ignored, or that sex with an extremely intoxicated girl isn’t rape, or that girls cry rape, or that sexual assault should be distinguished from rape. The people making those arguments to be part of the problem, rather than observers to it.
Much has been written on how the military criminal justice system deals (or fails to deal with) sexual assault. I agree with the central point of many that a fundamental problem lies with commanders holding the authority to dismiss cases. The problem with this revolves around the incentives that commanders face – it is undoubtedly better for a unit commander to have as few sexual assault convictions in his or her unit as possible. As a rule, both the military and civilian sector do not expect people to sacrifice their promotion prospects out of the good of their hearts. A commander knows that an acquitted, or uninvestigated, sexual assault won’t show up on their promotion package, but a sexual assault conviction certainly will. Many commanders who have gotten far enough to be in that position got there by doing everything they can to be promoted, and they have been rewarded for it. To expect them to suddenly change course is ridiculous.
So we come to the much more difficult question of what can be done to change this paradigm. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill to take sexual assault cases out of the hands of the chain of command has merits. It would certainly fix the problem of inherent bias and probably add transparency to the process. It is bound to be opposed by most in the military as well as their supporters in congress – it smacks of a punishment, which (even if it is, and is deserved) is hard to swallow. It is also a somewhat frightening first step for the loss of authority of military commanders. The bill was recently blocked in the senate, and it’s story highlights how difficult a problem this is to handle, especially with top-down regulation.
A lot has been written about the common failures of the military’s prevention programs – that they pre-emptively blame the victim, that they demonize natural sexuality and alcohol use, or that they are implemented half-heartedly. I pretty much agree with all of it. While the sexual assault prevention program at my academy certainly had its defenders, whom I have nothing but respect for, it fell into many of the classic traps: don’t drink too much, don’t be alone, and be with people you trust. As a guy, this never passed the smell test. I could (and did) go to parties with people I barely knew, drink too much, and crash in unfamiliar places, and do it with a reasonable expectation of not being raped. No woman could do that with the same expectation. The problem is not alcohol or risky behavior, it is the people who perpetrate sexual assault. Prevention should focus on changing the culture that makes perpetrating sexual assault common, not on giving people reasons to blame themselves if they are assaulted.
The main contribution I would like to make to this part of the discussion is that prevention as a focus is not enough. I would go so far as to say that publicly stating that your focus is on prevention is to potentially imply that prosecution is not a focus. That might be because prosecuting sexual assault is apparently incredibly difficult, if the rates of conviction and incarceration are any guide. It might also be because, as I’ve discussed above, commanders are incentivized to not prosecute, to the point that they will simply set aside convictions. The first is on the face an understandable move – if you can’t prosecute it, at least try to stop it from happening – but the second isn’t. The second is a hard fix, but the first shouldn’t have to be.
On the disparities in prosecution: if my four years at a service academy taught me anything, its that if the military wants to screw you over, it will screw you over. If your commander wants your head, he or she will get it one way or another and there is nearly nothing you can do about it. In short, to fight the system you need one of the few JAGs who are smart, experienced in the military criminal justice system, and actually care enough about you to do everything they can to help you out (however, when that happens, there are many ways to work the system to the advantage of the accused. More on this later). There are so many rules in the UCMJ, and so many openings for commanders to add more rules, as well as such vast potential for punishment, that if a commander wants to end the career of a subordinate, he or she really just needs to put the time in. We see this with drug use, which is entirely zero tolerance, and with DUIs and other crime, which are punished severely and routinely.
However, with sexual assault, we see the conviction rates plummet. In fact, if a woman accuses someone of sexual assault, she is more likely to end up leaving the military shortly thereafter than the accused. Part of this is certainly because following sexual assault a man or women may want to leave the service. It is also sometimes because there is a disgusting tendency to consider victims of sexual assault as troublemakers through their mere presence, which leads to them being strongly encouraged to leave the military. But for most part, its because sexual assault is so rarely investigated and convicted.
There are two main components to this problem, and again, one is an easy fix and the other isn’t. The first is that the military justice system is a couple decades behind civilian courts in rape shield laws. If there was any doubt to this in the public mind it was washed away by the recent Article 32 hearing for three Naval Academy football players accused of sexually assaulting a female midshipman. The three may be guilty or innocent; far be it from me to comment on a case in progress where I do not know all the details. But either way, the cross examination techniques that their counsel were permitted to use are simply archaic. Questions about lingerie, sexual history, even the implication that oral sex is by default consensual were all raised, and legally so. Simply bringing the Article 32 and courts martial standards up to par with civilian courts would potentially make a significant difference in the prosecution of sexual assault.
The second problem of investigation and prosecution, that defies simple resolution, is the culture of the military. I don’t call it a masculine culture because that implies masculinity is synonymous with rape culture or sexism, which I do not believe. The problem is the sexist culture of the military, which runs all the way up to military-wide directives that say women are inherently unfit for combat, or that openly gay or lesbian individuals are unfit for any military duty (both of which are gone or on the way out, but only recently so). It runs all the way down to new cadets with fresh-shaven heads that tell their bunkmates that women are too soft for the military and they’ll never respect them. It includes uniform regulations that are flattering to men and unflattering to women (legend has it the original uniform designers didn’t want men to be distracted by female co-workers). It includes mandatory maternity leave but not paternity leave, in an institution where such extended leave can be fatal to a career. It includes height and weight standards that are more restrictive for women, because women are expected to weigh less even at the same height. In a culture where women are subordinated regularly, it comes as no surprise that there is serious opposition to even reporting sexual assault, and when it is reported, it is often ignored, forgotten, or quashed. The same is true for men who report sexual assault, because despite their gender the accusation, and the crime, is incorrectly considered a typically female problem.
This is where solutions falls short. The shear rate of sexual assault in the military makes it clear that this isn’t a minor facet of the culture – going by the numbers, pretty much everyone must at least know of someone being sexually assaulted, on a yearly basis. I know of several after just four years at an academy, and most were never reported or investigated to my knowledge. This sexism is clearly a significant part of military culture, and will require drastic measures to change. Tailhook, and the publicity and humiliation it brought, was more than twenty years ago, but has not changed much. So what’s it going to take. Will this require cultural action or change on the level of the Vietnam-era race riots, or the switch to being a dry Navy in 1914. I don’t know the answer to all of it, but I do know that it is a problem, and steps need to be taken. Reformation of Article 32 and Senator Gillibrand’s bill would be a start, but not much more. We need cultural overhaul.
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