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The US military's 'invisible men'

The majority of sexual abuse victims in the US armed forces last year were men - but most of them have remained silent.

Last Modified: 06 Jun 2013 13:29
France Winddance Twine

France Winddance Twine is a documentary filmmaker and a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Girls with Guns: Firearms, Feminism, and Militarism; Geographies of Privilege; A White Side of Black Britain: Interracial Intimacy and Racial Literacy.
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A sex abuse scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas has led to the convictions of 18 instructors [AP]

On May 3, Staff Sergeant Emily J Allen - the single mother of a seven-year-old daughter and the first female instructor to be charged in the worst sex scandal in the history of the United States Air Force - was sentenced to three months in prison and 30 days of hard labour.

Allen pleaded guilty to having sex with a male trainee and seeking sex with another. This case called attention to the fact that male soldiers are also vulnerable to sexual harassment by their superiors. Allen is the 18th instructor to be convicted in a military trial since July 2012 at the joint Lackland-San Antonio base in San Antonio, Texas.

In a scandal that began at the Lackland-San Antonio air base almost two years ago and may expand to four bases, 34 instructors were removed from their positions, while five former commanders and a senior non-commissioned officer have been disciplined

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the US witnessed a sexual revolution generated by second-wave feminism. In 1973 - after the end of the Vietnam War - compulsory military service, or what is known as "the draft", was officially ended and the US Armed Services shifted to an all-volunteer military. This resulted in a dramatic rise in women and men from lower strata of society joining the military. 

Today, women constitute up to 14.5 percent of the US Armed Services, with black women representing about one-third of the women enlisted. Those who enlist are more likely to be black, Latina, immigrants and white women from economically poor backgrounds. 

Increasing economic inequality in the US, combined with the defunding of public education, has made the military a place of refuge for people from working-class and impoverished families. It is an institution that offers the promise of upward mobility for men and women, native-born as well as new immigrants, whose families lack the resources to pay for college education.

Military rape survivors urge accountability

As a result, if they are sexually assaulted as recruits, enlistees are less likely to feel that they can afford to abandon their careers given limited job options in the current economy. 

'Don't ask, don't tell' 

The current face of "sexual assault survivors" in the US military is female. The experiences, voices and faces of male survivors of military sexual assault are missing. Men comprise 85.5 percent of active-duty personnel, and among the estimated 26,000 military personnel who were assaulted last year, male soldiers made up slightly over half

Why have they not come forward to support the female veterans who have reported their abuse? They remain relatively invisible in reports of military sexual rape, and men appear only as perpetrators. 

If the Department of Defense really seeks to transform the US Armed Services' institutional culture of rape, then it must define the problem as one that is not primarily a "female" issue, but one linked to the cultural definition of masculinity and power. 

Have we entered a new era of "Don't ask, don't tell" when it comes to the rape of men by other men? Are men who have been assaulted expected to treat this as simply a part of "belonging" to an organisation that requires a direct engagement with violence, regardless of sexual orientation? 

The Invisible War, a documentary directed by Kirby Dick about military sexual assault that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, focuses primarily on the experiences of female sexual assault survivors, and devotes only a few minutes to several male veterans who were raped while on active duty. The men who appear in the documentary remain haunted by their experiences of abuse and are too ashamed to report or discuss it - even with family members. 

Almost 90 percent of military sexual abuse victims do not report their assault - meaning that the majority of men remain silent after their abuse.  

Male invisibility 

While the suffering and sexual assault of women remains a serious problem and must be acknowledged, we must not forget that all new recruits as well as seasoned soldiers are vulnerable to sexual assault.

We do not have any reliable data from the US Department of Defense about the number of sexually abused men, as they often fail to report for fear of retaliation. Until more of them speak out, the issue of sexual abuse will be defined as a "women's problem" or a problem unique to female soldiers - which is a mistake. 

Based on the testimony of brave soldiers who have come forward, it is evident that sexual assault in the military is often not an isolated event, but a routine frequently involving other soldiers as witnesses, collaborators or friends of the perpetrator. 

US military: Sexual assaults on the rise

The US Department of Defense's 2012 report on sexual violence in the military estimated that 26,000 soldiers were sexually assaulted that year - a 35 percent increase from 2010. 

Since the release of The Invisible War, awareness of sexual assault in the military among the civilian population has increased dramatically. It took a documentary to force the public to take notice of something that has been going on for decades. 

The US Armed Services is often described as a "family" by veterans and victims of sexual abuse. Soldiers who have come forward and reported being sexually assaulted have employed familial language to describe their perpetrators and compared them to their siblings. 

Using familial language reveals that the sexual trauma they have experienced goes beyond physical assault - it includes emotional betrayal. The failure to adequately prosecute and handle cases of sexual assault shows an institutional culture in which soldiers are punished for exposing the equivalent of a "family secret". 

Sexual abuse survivors are expected to remain silent for the sake of unit cohesion. Like incest victims, they are threatened with expulsion from the family if they divulge the secret. The rigid and hierarchical organisational structure of the US military makes it virtually impossible for soliders to report their abuse, because the entire chain of command must be informed - and the chain of command often includes either the perpetrator of sexual assault or an ally or friend.  

What would justice look like? 

The US House Armed Services Committee recently passed a bill stripping commanding officers of their authority to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction in rape and assault cases. The recently released Department of Defense report revealed that 3,374 military personnel reported sexual assault last year.  

Although this is very low compared to the estimated total of 26,000 sexual assaults, even those convicted can have their convictions overturned without civilian oversight. This means that soldiers convicted of abuse may remain in the service - and even be promoted - while continuing to commit sex crimes.

There is no reliable data on the number of active-duty soldiers who have sexually assaulted someone and not been dismissed, dishonourably discharged or served substantial prison time. The amount of discretion that commanding officers possess has concealed, protected and reproduced a culture of sexual assault in the US Armed Services and created a veil of secrecy. 

Like the Catholic Church, the US military is a hierarchical institution that has invested too much authority in a small number of men who are protected, rather than held accountable, when they abuse others. US military leaders have proven they are incapable of properly and justly handling sexual assault cases, and that they need oversight. Until more male victims join their female peers in demanding changes, though, it is unlikely that major changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice will be made.  

The military leadership appears to have no motivation to relinquish control over the handling of sexual assault cases - despite overwhelming evidence that decades of scandals, including the current Texas air force base scandal, have failed to change an institutional culture that allows rape. 

At the very least, the US Congress needs to establish a civilian and bipartisan oversight committee to monitor and adjudicate sexual assault cases. 

We need the "invisible" men - the male victims of military sexual assault - to speak out and support the women and men who have sacrificed their military careers to seek justice. Every week seems to bring another sex scandal. Will we have another bout of temporary outrage without any "real" changes in the military and judicial culture of the US Armed Services? 

France Winddance Twine is a documentary filmmaker and a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Girls with Guns: Firearms, Feminism, and Militarism (2013), Geographies of Privilege (2013), A White Side of Black Britain: Interracial Intimacy and Racial Literacy (2010) and others. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Winddance_Twine

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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