Because they can: Three rapes every hour in the military

Female soldiers train on a firing range in Fort Campbell, Ky., in September 2012. (Mark Humphrey/AP) Rape in the military … Continued

Female soldiers train on a firing range in Fort Campbell, Ky., in September 2012. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Rape in the military is a lot like rape in civilian life. Rapists rape because they can, because the stigma is placed on the victim not the rapist. And the more closed and hierarchical an institution is, the more the victim is stigmatized and the rapist gets away with it. This what happens in the church and it is what happens in the military.

I have done volunteer rape crisis counseling as a pastor, and have written about the multiple crises inherent in sexual assault, as in my chapter on rape and healing with ethicist Mary Pellauer.

Sexual predators love secrecy, they thrive on it. Therefore, the first thing that has to happen is that the cover-up must end. Just as with child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, that doesn’t end the abuse, but ending the secrecy can become the beginning, a way to move toward justice for those who have been victimized, and ultimately to prevention and change.

Today there’s no hiding the staggering numbers on sexual assault in the military any more. The Pentagon has just released a new report that shows sexual assaults in the military are up sharply, up to the rate of 70 per day. That translates into almost three rapes every hour, all day long, all night long, every twenty-four hours.

This shocking report comes just after the Air Force officer in charge of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was charged with sexual battery, and following a string of reports on sexual assault in the military, especially in the Air Force.

President Obama has expressed frustration with the failure of the Pentagon to effect change. The President also said he had instructed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “to step up our game exponentially ” to prevent sex crimes in the military and hold offenders accountable.

It’s not going to work.

The military, like many institutional churches, is a closed system. Change cannot come from within and it has not. The Service Women’s Action Network fact sheet on “Rape, Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Military” states there have been “25 years of Pentagon studies, task forces, and congressional hearings” and this violence continues to occur at “alarming rates.”

The military system cannot fix itself from the inside, because the culture itself has produced this result. Rape culture in the military is a product of the gender and power relations of military culture.

Cultures change slowly, but they do not change at all without outside pressure. That is why the approach of the Service Women’s Action Network is an example of how to get the kind of change that is needed. It is a classic civil rights approach, where the voices and agency of servicewomen and women veterans drives the work. They recommend that service members be allowed access to civil courts in these kinds of cases.

In regard to military sexual assault it is absolutely crucial to take the prosecution of the accused out of the chain of command and allow service members access to civil courts. Both women and men are sexually assaulted in the military, so this must apply to all in the services. To get real change, you have to actually take investigation and prosecution outside the current culture.

BriGette McCoy, a former Army specialist, testified before the Senate Armed Services committee’s subcommittee on personnel about being raped and sexually harassed in the military.

Her words illustrate why a closed system like the military will never be able to reform itself:

“I no longer have any faith or hope that the military chain of command will consistently prosecute, convict, sentence and carry out the sentencing of sexual predators in uniform without absconding justice somehow,” she said.

Military rapists rape because they can. That has to stop being the case. Take the investigation and prosecution of rape in the military out of the chain of command. Consult the excellent website Protect our Defenders for support and advocacy information.

Three rapes every hour in the military is an outrage. We don’t need more Pentagon “action” or congressional hearings, and we don’t need more promises.

We need real change.

Susan Thistlethwaite, M.Div., Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and former President at Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her newest book is #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
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