Mental Health Experts Say Military Culture Condones Sexual Trauma

military sexual assault Credit: dvids / Flickr[/caption]

Despite the best efforts of the Department of Defense (DOD), the sexual assault crisis in the military continues, and now many mental health experts and former service members are saying that the very culture and laws of the military condone, and even encourage, military sexual trauma in the name of camaraderie and good order, and the problems are apparent from the very beginning.

In order to meet combat needs, services lowered their standards to allow more convicted felons into the ranks. Until the current fiscal year, someone with a conviction for a sexual-related crime could get a waiver to join the military, depending on the circumstances of the crime.

An amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) changed this. However, many who joined the service with a waiver are still on active duty today. A report from the Army found that those who do enter the service on a waiver are more likely to commit another sex crime.

A Captive Audience

When asked why sex offenders might be drawn to the military, Dr. Kristen Zaleski, Ph. D., said:

“They have a captive audience. A sexual predator in the military has it easy at the moment. No sexual offender registry exists to alert service members or military command.”

“Further, there is a culture of sexual harassment that a predator can hide behind easily. Once they are in a position of power such as a higher rank, they can get away with a lot more than a supervisor could in a civilian office place.” she added.

According to an article published in Stars and Stripes, the very traditions of the military that at one time were accepted as fostering camaraderie, such as cadence, give the impression that abusive behavior is acceptable.

In the Stars and Stripes article, Delilah Rumburg, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape/National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said that social rules “that oppress and objectify women, value the use of power over others, tolerate violence and victim-blaming, support traditional views of masculinity as dominant, and controlling and foster secrecy around individual or family matters all contribute to an environment where sexual violence can occur.”

When an environment — and those in charge of it — allows this behavior, it sends a message that forms of sexual violence are acceptable as well.

An article in the New York Times set out to examine whether power could turn men into sexual predators. The vast majority of the time, the answer is no. Arrogance precedes power, and power provides opportunity, but few men feel entitled to victimize others, and those who do felt that way long before attaining any power.

The same article also said that those who do have a sense of power and control can tend to objectify others in a self-serving way and can easily become sexual predators.

According to Dr. Kim Dennis, CEO and medical director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Facility:

“People that grow up with violence are more prone to gravitate towards work that involves violence—like the military. The structure of the military is also appealing to those who for whatever reason have little of that internally.”

Is A Decade of Conflict to Blame?

According to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, a decade of fighting wars could be to blame. In an interview with American Forces Press Service, Dempsey said:

“We’ve asked this all-volunteer force to fight a decade-long conflict, and we’ve asked them to deploy repeatedly. We need to understand the effect on the health of the force.”

According to Dennis, the conflict itself could play a role.

“When people are subject to the violence of war and cannot cope with it, they might be more prone to act out violently themselves. Normal rules of societal living are bent in war (like don’t kill other people, for instance),” she said. “It seems that some people can’t contain that to the battle field or other stressful, potentially life threatening situation that our soldiers are exposed to.”

But, not every soldier who has deployed multiple times to combat goes around assaulting other service members. Is a decade long conflict really to blame? Or, is it simply a case of making excuses and not holding a service member responsible for their own actions?

Reporting Perils

Rep. Jackie Speier said in a CNN article she authored:

“A culture of acceptance combined with few prosecutions against assailants and the conflicted chain of command structure discourages victims from reporting crimes.”

One of the biggest barriers to reporting is the victims aren’t always clear on what constitutes a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ has specific definitions for various sexual-related crimes that would be something completely different under civilian law. For example, using threats or blackmail to get someone to engage in sex would be considered rape under civilian law, but it is not under the UCMJ.

Few instances of military sexual assault are reported. Even if a victim does report the crime, he or she faces ridicule, insensitivity, and retaliation. The UCMJ simply doesn’t favor the victim, and while some positive changes have been made, the one change that would be most beneficial to victims has been stonewalled repeatedly.

When a victim reports a sexual assault, the military chain of command is responsible for deciding if an investigation will occur and if any charges will be brought. If a conviction does result, which rarely happens, the commander who brought the charges — called the convening authority — can overturn the conviction with no explanation at all. As the UCMJ currently stands, the unit commander can simply separate the victim from his or her attacker by transferring someone to a new department and that is the end of it.

“Commanders are responsible not only for the health and welfare of those in their commands, but also for good order and discipline, and as such they must be part of the solution” was the consensus of service leaders when testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 4. Despite multiple attempts to change the provisions of the UCMJ that give commanders total control, no meaningful changes have been made to date.

A study posted in the Journal of Diverse Social Work found that not only are there inconsistencies in the way that military leaders respond to military sexual assault, but from the moment a recruit enters the military “they are trained to accept forms of discrimination and to become quiet victims of the military.” It also found that military leaders often don’t take the sexual harassment training seriously and condone harassing behavior.

The American people seem to be just as conflicted when it comes to handling military sexual assault. A Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found that there is an even divide between those who support congressional oversight of military sexual assaults and those who oppose it. As the debate on the handling of military sexual trauma continues, we can only wait and see if substantive changes to culture, policy, and laws are made.