Saturday, May 11, 2013

Military Leaders Wrong-headed Victim Blaming

Unwanted sexual contact, sometimes merely an intentional physical brushing up against another soldier, is up 35% in the military over the past two years. It has always been a problem, as is more obvious sexual assault, and top brass have always known about it.

Case in point, the forty year plus tradition of the Naval Association Tailhook convention. The purpose of the annual convention turned "party/drunken brawl" is to learn new aviation techniques. But it becomes a morass of drunken aviators and naval officers, and the worst, in 1991, in the Las Vegas Hilton, saw scores of male naval officers convicted for the sexual assault of 26 women, 21 of whom were officers.
The Tailhook Scandal

Following that convention, Naval Admiral Frank Kelso (who was there) did his best to suggest zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military, and at the same time squelch the investigation.  George Bush accepted the Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III's resignation without regret for mishandling the affair. The story, The Mother of All Hooks: The Story of the US Navy's Tailhook Scandal is about 500 pages of testimony and tale, perfect documentary Oscar-award winning material.

Now we hear from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at the Senate Armed Services Committee mistakenly associating consensual teenage sexual behavior with the rise in sexual assault in the military. Welsh failed to communicate that sexual assault is a failure to ask permission for the favor of sexual contact. Communication is everything, especially when we speak of sensitive topics like this.

Here's what he said. Parenthetic italics, our additions:

“It’s a big problem for our nation. It may be as big or bigger elsewhere. . . . Roughly 20 percent of the young women who come into the Department of Defense and the Air Force report that they were sexually assaulted in some way before they came into the military (consistent with the general population) . So they come in from a society where this occurs (he is talking about sexual assault). Some of it is the hook-up mentality of junior high, even, and high school students now. . . . (This is only correct in that there is pervasive acquaintance rape, and his use of "hook up" is a mis-use of the term that implies consensual sex.) The same demographic group moves into the military.
“We have got to change the culture once they arrive. The way they behave, the way they treat each other cannot be outside the bounds of what we consider inclusive and respectful.”
 He has it right, the military has to foster an inclusive and respectful culture. At the same time, that the object of his speech is that 20 percent of young women who bring to their adult lives in the military a history of sexual abuse, indicates he blames them in some way. They somehow encourage it. After all, they "hook up."
Language is everything. And when you are top brass, what you say is representative of the thinking of the entire military, the country. A blooper like this, and we wonder if the lessons of Tailhook were lost, need revisiting. 
Sexual assault, sexual harassment, make up a continuum of violence. None of it has to do with sexual history of the victim, or the permissive culture of our high schools, or the culture of a traditionally drunken convention. It is all about consent--the lack thereof. 
What we have now, what is happening internationally, finally, is a revolt against the tolerance of sexual assault. In India the rape of a 5-year old girl, a gang rape of a student on a bus, and another of a 23-year-old woman dragged from her home, jarred the country as women take to the streets in protest. This is a revolt against the cover-up of sexual assault, even in political arenas and countries that once overlooked it, subtly even condoned the sexploitation of women, children, and even men. 
So General Welsh, time to revise your statement, if you haven't yet. Women who want to enlist in the United States Armed Forces need to know that you know that they are not to blame when they are over-powered, when they are hurt. 
It is ironic that the media glorifies these same women in uniform when they return from their tours of duty. The hearts of women in a country at war, fighting, side by side with other soldiers.
You bet.

Linda Freedman, MSW, PhD, LCSW, LMFT