The Military Still Doesn’t Understand What Rape Means

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 10 2013 12:18 PM

Air Assault

Sexual assaults in the military are skyrocketing. That’s because the military still doesn’t understand what assault is.

US Marine Cpl. Michelle Berglin (C) assigned to a Female Engagement Team (FET) patrols with Baker Company of the 1st battalion 7th Marines Regiment in Sangin.
This file photo shows a female Marine patrolling with members of a company. U.S. military policy regarding sexual assault is currently undergoing scrutiny.

Photo by Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images

This week the Pentagon released a survey estimating that the number of sexual assaults in the military jumped from 19,000 in 2010 to 26,000, just a few days after the Air Force officer in charge of sexual-assault-prevention programs was arrested for battery. The increase is especially distressing because rates of other violent crimes in the military are so much lower than in the civilian world.

It is worth noting that increased reporting does not necessarily mean increased incidents: It could be due to increased attention to the issue. As the director of the Navy’s SAPRO office notes, “More men are reporting unwanted contact, and officials are seeing people come forward about older assaults, both of which are signs of comfort with the system.”

But that doesn’t mean the system is working, exactly. What is more upsetting than the current numbers (since, sadly, there is a yearly parade of dismal figures) are the signs that many in the military still have such a narrow, misguided understanding of the dynamics of rape. For example, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh noted that 20 percent of women report they had been sexually assaulted before they came into the military and blamed that on “the hookup mentality,” which he implied they carry with them into the military. Aside from the fact that hookup culture might not be nearly was widespread as current parental hysteria may lead us to believe, the real problem with Welsh’s statement is that hookups, whether we like them or not, are voluntary. They are not the same as assault or rape.

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This backward thinking permeates and taints the Air Force’s education and awareness efforts. An Air Force brochure, for example, unhelpfully portrays sexual assault as largely a problem of violent stranger rape. But the reality is that most rapists usually target acquaintances and are more likely to incapacitate their victims rather than use outright violence, and they tend to offend repeatedly.

The broader culture has lately come to a more sophisticated understanding of rape, recognizing that the image of a woman assaulted by a stranger in a back alley is outdated. Date rape, acquaintance rape, and rape by a boyfriend or husband are as real—and as illegal—as violent stranger rape. But the Air Force has yet to catch up. Instead, the military is still stuck in a culture which is over worried about false accusations, which military men list as a top concern about moving women into combat jobs.

What does that culture feel like on the inside? We are two women who have served in the U.S. Army and have had personal experiences with how the U.S. military deals with sexual assault. Kayla Williams was a sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division, and Stephanie Driessel was a specialist also in the 101st.

Williams wrote a memoir about her experiences in the military and the pervasive sexual harassment she encountered. Twice while in initial entry training, she formally reported the incidents, one by a cadre member and one by a fellow student—Williams was never told whether the cadre member was censured, and her fellow student was counseled for skipping mandatory study hall but not for the harassment. But Williams was never sexually assaulted while in the Army.

Driessel, however, has never spoken publicly about her own experiences. Her memories align with Williams’ on a key point: There were a few especially bad apples, but there was also a broader culture pressuring acceptance of sexual harassment as part of military culture.

The incident she remembers most is an assault that took place July 2000, shortly after she had turned 18. She was a newly arrived Basic Training graduate at the Defense Language Institute. It was then that Driessel was successfully “sharked” within the first few weeks of arrival after accepting a dinner invitation from a prior-service soldier 15 years her senior. (“Sharking” was a term used by the male recruits; when new females showed up, it was like a bucket of chum thrown into the ocean.) He had badgered her relentlessly from the day she’d shown up, and despite her misgivings, she thought he might leave her alone if she agreed. (In a way she was right—he was never heard from again after that "date.") After dinner, he stopped by a convenience store and bought a soda in a big plastic cup. He dumped half of the soda onto the parking lot pavement and pulled a bottle of vodka from his backpack, replacing the soda he’d just poured out.

In short order, Driessel was drunk. Consent wasn’t exactly an option because by the time they got back to his room, she was barely conscious. Floating in and out of awareness as he pulled her shoes off, she was lying on the bed, essentially immobile—she remembers him shifting her limbs around to take the rest of her clothes off. Driessel didn’t resist or say no. By agreeing to have dinner with him and then drink his alcohol, she felt that whatever was happening may not have been something she wanted, yet did not jibe with the definition of rape she’d had in her mind: gang rape, forcible rape, aggravated rape—in other words, “real” rape.

Driessel went back to her room the next morning. She thought she could just put it behind her, but ended up calling her mother in tears several days later. She was confused—she felt violated and ashamed. There was also the worry that reporting what had happened might have lead to disciplinary action against her, due to underage drinking. Concerned about her mental well-being, Driessel’s mother called the drill sergeant regardless. Driessel was called into the sergeant’s office the next day and recounted what had happened. After formally reporting the incident (which at the very least involved the crime of providing alcohol to a minor), she heard nothing more. Driessel was not referred to the police or any counseling services. The whole experience was if it had never even been reported.

The humiliation Driessel felt, and the lack of response from anyone in the chain of command, instilled in her a sense of worthlessness that would linger for the rest of her enlistment. If this type of incident garnered so little action or attention, what was her value in the organization?

For those of us who experienced or witnessed this type of outcome for speaking out early in our military careers, the incentive to report drops. When harassed later in our careers, we didn’t even bother filing formal reports. Why bother, when is seems that perpetrators usually won’t be prosecuted, convicted, or punished and you run the risk of being publicly shamed or having your own career ruined?   

It’s time for this to change—and for the first time, there seems to be a chorus loud enough to prompt real shifts in the military’s approach. President Obama rightly put the focus squarely on offenders who he said have "got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged—period." (They must also be discharged with a record that follows them into the civilian world so communities know there are sexual predators in their midst.)

Handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault reports should be part of officer evaluation reports. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said the department plans to hold commanders responsible, but we don’t know exactly what that means yet—it is important for Congress, with the support of advocates like SWAN, to carefully monitor plans put forward in coming months and enact legislative changes if needed. 

For those in Congress and DoD leadership whose main concern is readiness, tackling sexual assault in the military should be a high priority. The current budget for prevention of sexual assault in the Armed Forces is a mere $14 million, while the cost to treat the victims after they leave the service in 2010 was $872 million. Allocating more resources to prevention, training, and prosecution today will save the government money in the long run.

Prevention training should be aimed at every enlisted trainee and officer cadet. That training must address issues service members are actually facing such as acquaintance rape, common tactics used by offenders, reporting procedures, frequency of repeat offenses, rarity of false reporting, and the consequences of conviction. Commanders should be held accountable for their responses to sexual harassment or assault. And since articles like this sometimes trigger strong responses in those who have experienced sexual assault, we are including links here to resources that can help.

While prevention is a key component, prosecution, conviction, and punishment of offenders are the other essential factors. In light of some of the shockingly short or nonexistent sentences, fundamental reform of the military justice system may be required. Victims will not report and offenders will not stop if there are no consequences; therefore the message needs to be constant and consistent: prevent, report, prosecute, convict.

Kayla Williams is a former sergeant and Arabic linguist in a Military Intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). She is also the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army.

Stephanie Driessel is a former specialist and Arabic linguist in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). She currently works in critical infrastructure security for a municipal government.

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