Things got ugly Tuesday when the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the issue of rampant sexual assault in the military. One particular point of contention is a debate over whether rape should be prosecuted outside of the military's chain of command, a change that supporters such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand say would make it easier for victims to report abuse.
Under current circumstances, victims have to worry that their commanding officers might value a rapist's work too much to take the complaint seriously, may have sexist attitudes about rape that prevent them from handling it properly, or may be eager to retaliate against the complainant for being a troublemaker. As Sen. Claire McCaskill impatiently explained to the military brass in the room, it's ridiculous to treat criminal sexual assault like it's an H.R. problem rather than a criminal matter:
Making things worse were the bone-headed Republicans—the sort who voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act—who appear to think the problem with sexual assault is the sex part as opposed to the violent assault part. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, characterized rape as the product of exposing horny young men to female bodies:
The young folks coming in to each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we've got to be very careful how we address it on our side.
As much as Chambliss would like to believe rape is the natural result of an erection plus a nearby female body, the evidence suggests that McCaskill is correct in her description of rape as a matter of "domination and violence" and not about sex. While most straight men experience strong feelings of sexual desire, very few of them rape women. (Research suggests only about 5-6 percent of men are rapists.) As McCaskill notes, the real problem is that there's a small number of sexual predators who repeatedly attack women in order to feel dominant and powerful, and the best solution to the problem is removing those predators from the population via prosecution.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, another Republican who voted against reauthorizing VAWA, also wanted to make the issue about sex instead of violence, using the specter of rape to grandstand against pornography:
Mr. Chairman, I’d just add a letter, a document here that was given to me from Morality in the Media. Pat Truman used to be in the Department of Justice. I knew him when he was there. He points out that, a picture here of a newsstand and an Air Force base exchange with, you know, sexually explicit magazines being sold. So, we live in a culture that’s awash in sexual activity. If it’s not sold on base, it’s right off base. There are videos and so forth that can be obtained, and it creates some problems, I think.
Like Chambliss, Sessions seems to be suggesting that men are beasts whose sexual arousal lead them to rape. These comments demonstrate why it's so important to get the prosecution of rape outside of the military hierarchy: because commanding officers who are in charge of handling reported rapes may very well believe the same sorts of myths that Sessions and Chambliss are spouting here, which would make those military leaders incapable of handling the complaints appropriately. The only way to address the significant problem is to take sexual assault reporting and punishment out of the chain of command and deal with it like the criminal matter it is.
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