Inside Story America

US military scandal: A culture of rape?

We ask how widespread sexual misconduct and abuse can be tackled in the US armed forces.

Two US air force trainers have been sentenced in connection with a widening sexual abuse scandal at one of the busiest military training centers in the nation. 

Investigators say at least 38 female trainees were victimised at the Lackland Air Force Base in the US state of Texas. Fifteen instructors have been implicated.

The boys club mentality is not as overt as it was 30 years ago …. This only becomes a crisis when it gets out in public …. The whole process of victims feeling like they are victimised again by the system discourages reporting and keeps a lot of this under wrap.

Morris Davis, a retired US air force colonel who led the investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at the US Air Force Academy in 2003

Last year, nearly 3,200 rapes and sexual assaults were officially reported, but the Pentagon admits that represents just 15 per cent of all incidents.

A military survey revealed that one in five women in the US forces has been sexually assaulted, but most do not report it. Nearly half said that they “did not want to cause trouble in their unit”.

A former army nurse told a member of the US Congress that during her tours in Iraq and Afghanistan she was more afraid of being attacked by her fellow soldiers than she was of the enemy.

But many of those attacked are men. In 2010 nearly 50,000 male veterans screened positive for “military sexual trauma” at the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

In April, Leon Panetta, the US defense secretary, announced new steps to deter assaults and make it easier to prosecute offenders. But some argue a military culture that makes it difficult for crimes to be reported is standing in the way of meaningful change.

Paula Coughlin-Puopolo, a former Lieutenant in the US Navy, was groped by at least 200 men at a convention of navy and marine corps aviators in 1991. She went public and what was known as the Tailhook scandal ensued. But no one was punished.

She says: “The situation in the military regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault has changed for the worse …. We’ve got a problem where victims are coming forward but their complaints aren’t actually being handled …. and no one is actually convicted. The actions of most of military leadership now towards a person that comes forward as a victim is to remove them from their job and ultimately punish them, while the perpetrators continue to march on smartly with their successful career …. Maybe it’s a squeamish conversation that real leadership doesn’t want to hear about the rape and the victimisation of their troops, but you can’t solve the problem until you turn the lights on.”

So what can be done to tackle widespread sexual abuse in the military? And why has the Pentagon failed to curb sexual misconduct and abuse in the armed forces?

Joining Inside Story Americas to discuss this are guests: Morris Davis, a retired US air force colonel who led the investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at the US Air Force Academy in 2003; Ariana Klay, a former US Marine Officer, who is one of eight current and former military members who have filed a lawsuit alleging they were raped, assaulted, or harassed during their service; and Aaron Belkin, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University and the author of Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire.

“This is not just a problem of a culture of underreporting and a system that punishes victims for reporting. This is really a rape culture in the military. Even if victims were more able to report the crimes, there is the bigger question of what’s producing the rapes in the first place?

You have a rape culture and you have an organisation that is very masculinist and that places a lot of value on dominance and power and subordination. You also have a system that’s trying to train people to overcome inhibitions against violence. So, to produce a warrior we have to train people how to become violent. In the training scenario you create a master-slave dynamic where commanders have almost unlimited authority over people they are in charge of. When you put these three factors together, you have a recipe for rape.”

Aaron Belkin, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University

This year, the US military announced changes in how it handles sexual assault allegations:

  • Victims can now seek an immediate transfer if the person accused is in the same unit
  • Evidence from rape cases will be kept for 50 years, so that victims have more time to file charges
  • Local unit commanders must report allegations to a special court-martial convening authority
  • No one below the rank of colonel or navy captain can dismiss assault allegations