The War on Women

March 5, 2009 § 3 Comments

Like Shira, I’m finally – finally – done with my junior thesis from last semester. In celebration, I’d like to post mine here. It’s about the epidemic of sexual violence within the U.S. military (that is, soldiers raping and assaulting other soldiers) and what the government isn’t doing about it.

As a Microsoft Word document, it’s just over eight pages. If you’re interested, click below the fold – and I welcome feedback in comments!

The War on Women

“It is in war that man makes his reputation.” – Alexander Hamilton

One in ten soldiers in Iraq, and one in seven in the entire military, is a woman. Though these women are still officially prohibited from combat, journalist Helen Benedict reports that “because of the nature of the Iraq war women are gunners atop trucks, are engaging in firefights, and are killing and being killed.” Over 100 female soldiers have died in Iraq, and nearly 600 have been wounded. They train with, fight with, and risk their lives with their male counterparts.

They also face one danger that their male comrades do not: the very real threat of sexual violence. These soldiers are being raped, assaulted, and harassed while doing their jobs at twice the rate of civilian women (Benedict) – and the government is turning a blind eye.

The Problem

Experts agree that rates of military sexual violence have reached epidemic proportions. Thirty percent of female soldiers have said they were raped by a fellow serviceperson while on active duty – a situation that is statistically more likely than being killed by enemy fire in Iraq. Others have been subjected to sexual assault [1]. And only one in ten female soldiers hasn’t experienced sexual harassment (Benedict).

Hundreds of women have suffered these crimes. They have names like Suzanne Swift, Maricela Guzman, Ingrid Torres, and Maria Lauterbach. They have names like Marti Ribiero, an Air Force sergeant who was raped by another soldier while on duty in Afghanistan two years ago. When she reported the offense to her superiors, they told her that instead of bringing charges against her rapist, she would be charged for dereliction of duty because she happened to leave her weapon unattended in the moments before the attack. Says Ribiero, “It’s taken me more than a year to realize that it wasn’t my fault. The military has a way of making females believe they brought this upon themselves. That’s wrong” (Benedict).

Chantelle Henneberry, an Army specialist, was sexually assaulted while deployed in Iraq. After she reported the incident, there was a delay in her scheduled promotion – while her assaulter was promoted without second glance. Cassandra Hernandez, employed by the Air Force, reported the gang-rape committed against her by three fellow soldiers in 2006. She was accused of indecent behavior (Benedict).

Then there’s the story of LaVena Johnson. After graduating high school, she left her hometown of St. Louis to follow in her father’s footsteps and enlist in the Army. In July of 2005, during her tour of duty in Iraq, she turned up dead. The incident was officially reported as a suicide.

Her parents have been suspicious of the case ever since. They say she seemed like her usual positive self in her daily phone calls home (Benedict); her father, a psychologist, adds that “suicide wouldn’t have been something that she would even consider” (Soldier’s Family). Their intuition is supported by curious evidence that contests the Army’s report.

An initial autopsy performed by the military supports the cause of death, as reported by the army. But photos taken during the investigation and obtained by the family suggest otherwise. [John] Johnson says images he received of his daughter’s body show abrasions to the face, burns, a broken nose and signs of sexual abuse, details not mentioned in the autopsy (Soldier’s Family).

The family received more information from LaVena’s peers in Iraq, who said her body had been found in a contractor’s tent. Compare that with the official claim that she was found in her own barracks, and you’ve got yourself a disturbing controversy.

The Johnsons have their own idea about why crucial details of their daughter’s death seem shifty: they think someone raped and murdered LaVena – and then burned her body to cover the tracks (Benedict). “It’s probably involving somebody with some rank and some prestige, and [military officials] are covering for them,” says her father, a veteran himself (Soldier’s Family). It seems that though its billboards parade dedication and honor as core values, the military is less interested in defending truly honorable principles and more committed to protecting its own reputation.

LaVena’s case demonstrates that to understand the scope of this epidemic, we can’t rely on government reports for the full story. We’ve got to look beyond the information that the military offers up. The Miles Foundation is a nonprofit that monitors sexual assault within the national armed forces. The Foundation provides confidential support services and counseling to female soldiers, creating an atmosphere of trust in which survivors of assault are more likely to report incidents.

Over the last few years, the organization has seen substantial increases – of 10 to 15 percent each quarter year – in reported assaults (Norris). This could point to two things, and neither of them are good. One possibility is that women aren’t comfortable reporting crimes against them to their military superiors (the most direct and responsible approach) because of stigma or fear. It could also just mean that more assaults are being committed. Either way, the bottom line is that while the organization’s work is necessary and laudable, its very existence highlights a serious problem within the military complex.

Coming Forward
“They tell me that I’m not a team player by coming forward. They’re right. I don’t want to be part of a team that treats anyone this way.” – woman subjected to sexual harassment by a fellow soldier (Nelson 13)

It’s not just private shame that has kept women silent – it’s a legitimate fear for their jobs. The Foundation’s executive director, Christine Hansen, says that less than a third of women who report sexual violence have been able to maintain careers in the military (Norris). I’ll repeat that: two thirds of women who suffer assault or rape – a violent crime committed against them – lose their jobs when they tell someone.

Women fortunate enough to keep their jobs often find that the official response is nil.

Of the sexual assaults reported and recorded by the [Department of Defense] in the fiscal year 2007, half were met with no official action, a third were dismissed as unworthy of investigation and only 8 percent of those investigated were referred to courts martial. In comparison, 40 percent of those arrested for sex crimes in civilian life are prosecuted (Benedict).

Ironic, isn’t it, that crimes within a government institution are met with drastically less judicial action than those among the wider population. Says one survivor of assault,

The Army pretty much ignored the case until CNN broadcast a story. I was investigated; the harasser officially denied everything in a letter to the commanding general; the general disregarded witness statements and threw out an investigating officer’s report that substantiated it, and that was that (Nelson 32).

Another survivor echoes these sentiments, saying that women who’ve faced similar trauma are “too afraid to come forward. They’ve watched what has been done to me. The complaints have been brushed under the rug” (Nelson 13). When women find strength enough to overcome the stigma of sexual assault and report the offenses against them, they are hushed and ignored.

The Military Climate
“You’re one of three things in the military – a bitch, a whore or a dyke. As a female, you get classified pretty quickly.” – Abbie Pickett, National Guard combat-support specialist (Corbett)

The phenomenon of sexual violence in times of war isn’t new. It has been acknowledged, documented, and analyzed for as long as combat itself. Since the two practices – warfare and rape – are “inextricably entwined,” historians are quick to treat military sexual violence as “inevitable,” writes Joanna Bourke in her exhaustive book Rape: Sex, Violence, History (359) [2]. It’s true that war often leads to increased sexual violence – but why? What connects the two?

The military climate is rife with what I’ll call aggressive masculinity. This definition of manliness is taught, encouraged, and rewarded by the military institution as a whole. It comes in three degrees:

1) Implicit harassment presents itself primarily in the form of demeaning jokes and pornography. Individual female soldiers aren’t targeted for harassment; rather, women as a whole are degraded, and being a woman becomes associated with being weak and undesirable. As sergeant Sarah Scully says, “in the Army, any sign that you are a woman means you are automatically ridiculed or treated as inferior” (Benedict).

2) Verbal harassment, as described above by Abbie Pickett, is most obvious in the form of name-calling or stereotyping. Classifying women into different “types” makes them easier to control: when you can be only one of three kinds of woman – and all three of those profiles (bitch, whore, dyke [3]) are negative – your individuality is stripped. Unlike male soldiers, who can be complex characters, women are limited and dehumanized. Without unique identities, they are nameless and expendable.

3) Sexual violence is the most destructive manifestation of aggressive masculinity. It includes rape as well as other forms of sexual assault.

These three forms of aggressive masculinity combine to produce an atmosphere where sexual violence is not only widespread, it is practically excused.

Bourke quotes one Marine recruit about what he learned while training for the Vietnam War.

Good things are manly and collective; the despicable are feminine and individual. Virtually every sentence, every description, every lesson embodies this sexual duality, and the female anatomy provides a rich field of metaphor for every degradation. When you want to create a group of male killers, that is what you do, you kill the women in them. That is the lesson of the Marines. And it works (367).

As described, male soldiers are steadily and deliberately taught by their superiors that humiliating women is not just acceptable, it is a necessary part of being a military man. To be a “good killer,” you must eradicate every trace of femininity – not just in male soldiers, but in females as well.

Such degradation of women has also been observed more recently. Christine Hansen, Miles Foundation director, notes that such pervasive hostility towards women continues to thrive: some 30 years after the Air Force Academy began admitting women to be trained, one in four male cadets are still opposed to the institute’s equal-opportunity admissions policy. Maybe these men resent the greater competition they face to get into the prestigious academy; perhaps they’re angry at women for infiltrating a space that’s historically been “just for the guys.” Whatever the cause, such antipathy is dangerous to women. And it’s not confined to the relatively sheltered school environment – it’s also present on the battlefield:

Playboy magazines are for sale at the Post Exchange. Porno films are purchased on the Iraqi black market. Pornographic pictures are scrawled on the bathroom walls (Hansen) [4].

In this atmosphere where women are systematically degraded, Hansen says, “rape-conducive norms abound.”

While military sexual violence may seem unavoidable, given the armed forces’ love affair with aggressive masculinity, Bourke notes that violence is preventable:

Some conditions of military life and lifestyle reduce the likelihood of sexual violence…Military units operating in nearly identical environs display very different tendencies to act in sexually aggressive ways…The view that [assault] is an inescapable element of modern warfare has encouraged passive responses to its occurrence. When anyone shrugs and mouths clichés such as ‘war is an atrocity so atrocities will take place,’ we should beware (385).

In other words, we can’t chalk up this epidemic to the old excuse that boys will be boys – or, worse, that boys will be rapists. We can’t let ourselves off the hook that easily. It’s time to stop being passive and confront this crisis head-on.

Here’s the crux: men aren’t made to rape! They are, in fact, people who on the whole make responsible, good decisions just like the rest of us. Any person who thinks otherwise – who argues that men are inherently selfish and violent – has a depressing and limited understanding of human nature. The argument that guys just can’t help themselves may seem like it’s cutting men some generous slack, but in reality it limits men by clumping them into a Neanderthal-esque stereotype. It’s demeaning, it’s offensive, and it just isn’t true. As analysts, we must beware of such a gender profile – that men are domineering, destructive beasts who can’t repress their ferocious sexual appetites; that we can do nothing to reverse their intrinsic desire to act violently. This way of thinking allows the real culprit of this sexual violence crisis – military culture, which actively encourages men to rape – to get by unscathed. We do a service to men and women both when we recognize the larger forces at play.

We can’t focus our vision on individual situations and psychological states. We need to go further than a one-dimensional analysis to a real dissection of military culture. And the U.S. government, in turn, must look beyond the band-aid solutions it has implemented up until now.

Demanding Change
“We have an epidemic here.” – Rep. Jane Harman, D-California (Sexual assault in military)

Though military officials like to flaunt their concern for crimes of sexual violence that happen on their watch, little action is being taken to produce tangible results. Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Whitley says that since the creation of the Office in 2005, “we are seeing more victims making reports and accessing care…we are extremely concerned when even one sexual assault occurs” (Benedict) [5]. But the stories and statistics I’ve cited happened after the office implemented its reforms. It seems the Office is all talk and no action.

The agency was created after a public and congressional outcry a few years ago. Since then, representatives like Jane Harman (D-California), Louise Slaughter (D-New York), Ike Skelton (D-Missouri), and Michael Turner (R-Ohio) have fought the uphill battle to better the situation for female soldiers. But the measures that do pass, according to expert Benedict, “are so irregularly implemented that they have failed to change the dismal picture for women in any significant way.” As the statistics and personal narratives attest, sexual violence still poses a tremendous threat to women in the military.

Benedict hits the nail on the head when she writes, “all the well-meaning reforms, meetings, and rules issued in Washington, D.C., will never have much effect as long as military culture remains unchanged.” As my analysis shows, the problem is much deeper than individual cases. The military’s treatment of women and femininity needs to be transformed, so that female soldiers are treated as comrades just like men.

The time is ripe to demand real progress – not the superficial solutions that the government trips over itself to publicize, but measures that attack the root cause of these crimes: military culture and aggressive masculinity. As Benedict and Bourke suggest, we can start by banning pornography, creating stricter standards for official response, and increasing support for programs that empower – rather than silence – survivors of assault. It’s imperative that the government maintains transparency: officials have got to stop skipping hearings and start getting real about this problem. And putting more women in positions of power (in every field, but for this issue the military in particular) will also speed up the healing process.

I’m well aware that the military complex may not have the strength to confess that the culture they implement, enforce, and reward is causing crimes against hundreds of their own employees. So it must be our job to pressure them into owning up.

Conclusion: Finding Common Ground

I should probably come clean: I’m a pacifist. The military institution horrifies me, and I’m tired of our government’s nonsense excuses for waging war. Some of my family feels the same – my father and uncle were loud, baby-faced Vietnam protesters; they mailed their draft cards back to sender and hitchhiked to see Hair on Broadway. Meanwhile, my aunt was listening to her father’s memories of World War Two, and her future husband was on duty in Vietnam. Talk about a dichotomy! Needless to say, current events are somewhat unmentionables at Christmastime.

So my veteran uncle won’t agree with me when I say that the military complex is despicable. I can’t read one of my grandfather’s wartime love letters to his wife without bursting into tears. I’ve got more than one “make love, not war” t-shirt in my drawer – and I probably won’t be wearing one at the next family gathering.

But can’t we all agree that those who do enlist deserve to be treated with respect by the government they’ve signed away their life to? Is that so revolutionary? I may not agree that women in the military should be enabling our government’s wars, but I still believe that they deserve to work without fear of sexual violence. If women are bold enough to put their lives in the control of their superiors, then the government would do well to treat them with dignity in return.


[1] So what’s the difference between rape and assault? Sexual assault is an umbrella term to describe “any unwanted sexual activity – it includes everything from taking pictures of someone naked without their consent, to groping, to attempted rape, to rape,” says activist Nora Niedzielski-Eichner. And what exactly constitutes rape? Feminist blogger Jessica Valenti explains: “the legal definition varies from state to state, but the generally accepted definition is forced intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral) – force being physical or psychological coercion” (Full Frontal 65). Sexual harassment, by contrast, isn’t physical. It’s inappropriate sex- or gender-related comments, like “being leered at, hit on, whistled at, or shouted about” (He’s A Stud 150).

[2] A point of clarification. There are two distinct brands of military sexual violence: assaults committed by soldiers against fellow soldiers, and assaults committed by soldiers against the enemy. Both kinds are archaically cruel and unusual – as is most, if not all, of warfare. In the quoted passage, Bourke is referring to both; this article only discusses the former.

[3] Interesting that all three of these epithets describe “types” of women notorious for taking power away from men. The bitch is a woman who gets angry, who speaks up, who makes her opinion known and doesn’t take any shit for it. The whore is a woman who won’t be shamed for enjoying sex; she sleeps with lots of men without emotional attachment, moving on to new adventures the next morning. The dyke is butch, masculine, strong. She can fend for herself, and isn’t interested in sex with men.

All three of these stereotypical women take away men’s power (and, incidentally, rape is an exertion of power – perhaps an attempt to gain that which has been “stolen”). The bitch takes away the power of men to silence women by getting angry, getting loud; the whore takes away the power of men to limit women’s sexuality by seeking pleasure on her own terms; the dyke takes away the power of men to be attractive – because she doesn’t want to be desired by men, she doesn’t seek their almighty approval. These stereotypical women are threats to aggressive masculinity. By labeling women as such, male soldiers can quarantine that destructive power. (A woman who is humiliated by being called a bitch will be reluctant to take on the “bitchy” quality of speaking up when she’s angry – so, if she is sexually assaulted, she might not report the offense or seek the help she deserves.)

[4] Ah, the porn question. All feminists are anti-porn, right? Wrong. There are two main currents of debate about pornography in the feminist sphere: some feminists believe that pornography is inherently offensive to women because it artificializes the sexual experience and makes men feel entitled to women’s bodies. Others believe that while most mainstream porn is misogynistic (anti-woman) because of its degrading and/or violent content, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, porn that depicts consenting partners enjoying a mutually pleasurable act is very feminist.

I fall into the latter section of feminists, because I think porn can be an empowering tool for men and women. But it’s only fun if everyone is depicted thoughtfully. Magazines like Playboy, unfortunately, don’t subscribe to this feminist belief. Instead, they objectify women, Photoshop their bodies, and erase their sexualities – which means that men buying them might internalize the mantra of woman = object for my sexual pleasure. Misogynistic porn, therefore, has much larger significance than just getting off. It fosters the idea that women are sex objects whose only purpose is to be available for men. When actual women don’t let their bodies be used in the same way, men’s continuing sense of ownership can lead to rape. Misogynistic porn tells men they have unrestricted access to women’s bodies, and they sometimes pursue that access in real life even if the woman in question says no.

[5] Whitley gave this statement at a September 2005 hearing held by the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. She had been subpoenaed by Congress to appear at a different hearing two months earlier, held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, but her Department of Defense superiors banned her from testifying (Benedict). Apparently the military has a new “When Asked, Don’t Tell” policy. She eventually testified in September after a nasty letter was sent to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but the Department’s actions beg the question: how can they be “extremely concerned” about sexual violence when they refuse to speak at hearings on the subject? What do they need to keep quiet about?


Benedict, Helen. “The Scandal of Military Rape.” Ms. Fall 2008: 40-45.

Bourke, Joanna. “Violent Institutions: The Military.” Rape: Sex, Culture, History. Great Britain: Shoemaker Hoard, 2007.

Corbett, Sara. “The Women’s War.” The New York Times Online. 18 Mar. 2007. Accessed 15 Dec. 2008.

Friedman, Jaclyn and Jessica Valenti, eds. Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008.

Hansen, Christine. “A Considerable Sacrifice: The Costs of Sexual Violence in the U.S. Armed Forces.” The Miles Foundation, Inc. 16 Sep. 2005. Accessed 3 Dec. 2008.

Mukhopadhyay, Samhita. “15 percent of women in the military have suffered sexual trauma.” 22 July 2008. Accessed 17 Nov. 2008.

Nelson, T. S. “We Have Met the Enemy and the Enemy Is Us;” “The Weakest Link Exposed.” For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military. New York: The Halworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press, 2002.

Niedzielski-Eichner, Nora. “Take Back Your Campus.” Sadie Magazine Online. Date of publication unknown. Accessed 20 Jan. 2009.

Norris, Michele. “Reported Cases of Sexual Assault in Military Rise.” National Public Radio Online. 4 Oct. 2007. Accessed 20 Nov. 2008.

Price, Diana. “Women’s Rights Violations Still Pervasive in U.S. Military.” National Organization for Women. 29 Aug. 2006. Accessed 3 Dec. 2008.

“Sexual Abuse by Military Recruiters: More Than 100 Women Raped Or Assaulted By Recruiters In Past Year.” CBS News Online. 20 Aug. 2006. Accessed 20 Nov. 2008.

“Sexual assault in military ‘jaw-dropping,’ lawmaker says.” CNN Online. 31 July 2008. Accessed 20 Nov. 2008.

“Soldier’s Family Challenges Army Suicide Report.” National Public Radio Online. 11 Aug. 2008. Accessed 20 Nov. 2008.

Valenti, Jessica. “He Walks Freely, She Gets Harassed.” He’s A Stud, She’s A Slut and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008.

Valenti, Jessica. “The Blame (and Shame) Game.” Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2007.

Valenti, Jessica. “Pentagon refuses to establish center for rape victims in the military.” 18 July 2006. Accessed 13 Jan. 2009.

UPDATE: Activist Kira Mountjoy-Pepka drops some knowledge in comments…

What is actually happening right now in the military is that because of the Feres Doctrine (which allows the military to decide if you can sue the military or not), people who report military sexual trauma are actually being denied their First Amendment Right to redress of grievance.

Us advocates have seen in thousands of cases that when someone reports MST, military investigators actually create false, misleading and incomplete crime reports. And the victims have no redress when this happens — they aren’t allowed to sue the military investigators. So they get persecuted by their command because the military investigators are taking the law into their own hands. This seems to be the defacto policy throughout the entire military, and the DoD is refusing to allow accountability and responsibility for this Constitutional crisis.

Also, the Miles Foundation is actually a front for the DoD to “deal” with MST, meaning they attempt to subvert real attempts at change. None of us advocates know of any victim that has ever been helped by them.


§ 3 Responses to The War on Women

  • Kira Mountjoy-Pepka says:

    Thank you for all this. I am the director of a new charity for people with military sexual trauma (and am chronicling in my blog the hilarious exploits we get into while trying to run an organization on a shoe-string budget), and Susan Avila-Smith, the director of VetWow, sent me a link to your piece.

    Two things —

    What is actually happening right now in the military is that because of the Feres Doctrine (which allows the military to decide if you can sue the military or not), people who report MST are actually being denied their First Amendment Right to redress of grievance.

    Us advocates have seen in thousands of cases that when someone reports MST, military investigators actually create false, misleading and incomplete crime reports. And the victims have no redress when this happens — they aren’t allowed to sue the military investigators. So they get persecuted by their command because the military investigators are taking the law into their own hands. This seems to be the defacto policy throughout the entire military, and the DoD is refusing to allow accountability and responsibility for this Constitutional crisis.

    Also, the Miles Foundation is actually a front for the DoD to “deal” with MST, meaning they attempt to subvert real attempts at change. None of us advocates know of any victim that has ever been helped by them.

    Thanks for your interest in MST,


  • mirandanyc says:

    Wow, Kira. Thank you so much for that expertise.

  • […] Increased policing of our own military so that women soldiers will not be raped, assaulted, and not … […]

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