Sexual Assault's Damage to the Military Family

"It's like people who deal with incest," one audience member analogized sexual assault's damage to the Brotherhood (and, more recently, Sisterhood) of Arms in the American military at a panel hosted by the United States Navy Memorial this past July 31, 2013.The panel's generals and admirals from all five American services echoed the audience member's sentiments, with Major General Thomas Seamands from the United States Army using another familial analogy, "fratricide," to describe sexual assault. Left unaddressed by the panel, though, was whether recent policy changes on admitting homosexuals into the military and women into combat positions would only exacerbate the American military's sexual assault problem.

The panel comes in the wake of the Pentagon's recently released report on sexual assault in the military for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The report estimated that 26,000 service members suffered some form of Unwanted Sexual Contact (USC) during this period. Men were 13,900 or 53% of the victims, attacked mostly by other men.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr. and the other panel members all discussed various efforts to combat sexual assault in the military. Winnefeld in his opening remarks noted that in the last year 24% of military sexual assault investigations had led to a court martial compared to 14-18% of civilian investigations in the United States leading to prosecution. In the last two years the Army had prosecuted 49 cases declined by civilian authorities. The United States military was "capable of looking inward," Winnefeld stated, something that "makes us the best."

Yet Winnefeld did not underemphasize sexual assault's harm to the military. Given that "trust is the coin of the realm" in the military, the "insider threat" of sexual assaults is "corrosive."Marine Corps Brigadier General Russell A. Sanborn likewise observed the contradiction between sexual assault and the military's ethos that "we'll defend each other in battle." Winnefeld's Navy colleague, Rear Admiral Sean S. Buck, concurred that with respect to the "readiness issue" of sexual assault "we need to regain the trust" of military personnel. In purely monetary terms as well, a RAND study cited at the panel concluded that sexual assault in the military during 2012 cost $3.6 billion.

Both Seamands and Air Force Major General Margaret H. Woodward spoke of assault victims suffering from "stigma." Yet the Coast Guard's Rear Admiral Daniel Neptun noted that in particular there was "a lot of stigma" for male victims of male perpetrators, making it a "little harder" to report an attack. Speaking of reported homosexual assaults, Neptun said that "you just shake your head."

Neptun had responded to Elizabeth Blanc, a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator in the Naval District of Washington. Blanc had asked from the audience, "Where do we talk about male victims?" Validated by Pentagon statistics, Blanc noted that sexual assault in the military was "not a gendered issue" and protested against making "male victims a footnote."

Blanc's query raised the effect of openly allowing homosexuals in the military upon sexual assault. Asked after the event, Blanc cited the fact that "we've always had gay folks" in the military and speculated about improvement now that homosexuals could report assaults without fear of expulsion from the military. Nonetheless, Blanc believed that the effects of ending the military's homosexuality ban upon sexual assault were still "TBD."

Yet already some evidence exists to substantiate the traditional concern voiced by me to Blanc that open introduction of homosexuals into the military's intimate quarters will only aggravate sexual assault problems. The conservative Center for Military Readiness (CMR), has noted that buried within Volume II of the 2012 Pentagon report is a statistic showing 51% of military men reporting unwanted touching in 2012 as opposed to 31% in 2010. The corresponding figures for women have remained the same at 32%. Even before the military homosexuality policy change, Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council (FRC) found that 8.2% of FY 2009's 1,643 military sexual assault reports involved homosexual attacks, although homosexuals are less than 3% of the American population.

The panel's recurring invocation of trust's importance for the military and family metaphors could only provoke concerns about the compatibility of ending the military's gay ban with the "family values" of America's Band of Brothers and Sisters. Likewise, CMR and others have noted that introducing women into combat will newly expose fighting units to sexual issues for no countervailing military benefit even as the military as a whole struggles with sexual misconduct. American policymakers seem to have forgotten that any family, including the military's adoptive family, has to respect certain gender and sexual norms in order to function properly. Homosexuals in the military and women in combat raise not only issues of sexual assault and fraternization, but also about the propriety of homosexuality and placing women in the frontlines. In the coming years, Admiral Neptun and others are going to have a lot to shake their heads at.