On Feb. 9, U.S. Navy sailor Thomas Sawicki and his boyfriend Shawn Brier became the first gay couple to share the ceremonial first kiss for the homecoming of the submarine warship USS San Francisco at the Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California. The kiss was a sentimentally symbolic milestone for the gay rights movement, especially considering the Supreme Court’s strike-down of California’s Proposition 8 in 2013, and represents how both societal norms and military culture have gradually evolved to become more accepting of homosexuality. Likewise, the 2010 repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” demonstrates that allowing openly gay personnel to serve in the military is a more legally visible recognition of gay rights.
The keyword here is “visible,” because visibility is a crucial indicator of reform and progress. This is especially relevant to the military, because the military itself is not necessarily the most visible or omnipresent institution in daily life. While the reforms achieved for gay military personnel exemplify institutional reform, the fact remains that the military continues to be plagued by problems that often fly under the radar of the public eye. The most pervasive of these problems is arguably the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the military. Just as reforms were passed in order to make the military a safer institution for gay personnel, the same must be done to protect victims of military sexual assault.
(Military) culture shock
In 2011, over 26,000 cases of military sexual assault were reported. The stigma associated with being a sexual assault victim is underlined by the fact that only “about 6.8 percent of women surveyed said they were assaulted and 1.2 percent of the men. But there are vastly more men in the military; by the raw numbers, a bit more than 12,000 women said they were assaulted, compared with nearly 14,000 men.”
West Point graduate and former US Army officer Joachim Hagopian writes, “Higher military rates of sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and divorce compared to the general civilian population consistent over time all confirm a longstanding significant correlation measured between sexism, sexual violence and America’s culture of violence and war. In a hypermasculine sub-culture like the military, where physical aggression and fighting the designated enemy is mandatory, a direct link between physical violence and sexual aggression co-exists.” In other words, the violence of military culture isn’t only manifested through the extremely visible death and destruction of warfare, but also through the physical and emotional trauma that countless victims of rape and sexual assault are forced to suffer. A report by the Pentagon finds that US Air Force Academy had the highest number of sexual assault cases of any college in the U.S., with 130 reported incidents. The number of cases increased between the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years at the Naval Academy and West Point. Considering how even military cadets are often punished and or discharged for reporting about incidents that happened to them or their classmates, this demonstrates that sexual violence is very much a structural problem originating from the foundations of military culture itself.
Law and order
In August 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1422 into law. Under SB 1422, military sexual assault cases involving members of the California Military Department (CMD) are under the jurisdiction of local civilian authorities, and there is no statute of limitations for these cases. Effective as of January 1, 2015, the law also requires the CMD to “report annually to the governor and California state legislature sexual assault statistics and the efficacy of the department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program.”
Removing investigations and prosecutions of military sexual assault cases from the chain of command helps eliminate the problem of conflict of interest in the evaluation and prosecution of sexual assault cases, because this conflict of interest stems from the fact that military culture is embedded in rape culture. Bureaucratic ineptitude, therefore, is another obstruction to greater awareness on this issue. Even when cases are reported and put on trial, a victim’s credibility is often disregarded in favor of the assailant’s, and less than three percent of military rape and sexual assault cases result in punishment. In 2012, only 3,374 cases were officially reported, but only 302 were brought to trial. And when we recognize that the military is entrenched in a culture of tradition and honor, we see that many victims are afraid to speak up both because of the shame associated with sexual assault and the fear of being labeled as a traitor.
Given that this is a progressive piece of legislation, California is setting an example that other states should follow in prosecuting military sexual assault. As the bill’s sponsor Senator Alex Padilla explained, “Victims…deserve our support and a respectful and effective justice system. This new law will demonstrate that formally removing the investigation and prosecution from the chain of command is sound public policy.”
The systemic approach
When we assign symbolic significance to Sawicki and Brier’s kiss, it’s because we’ve acknowledged that changing cultural attitudes towards homosexuality have allowed for more open expression, and this translates to greater visibility and acceptance for the gay community. Changing social norms are indeed a big part of the solution, but without legislative action, it is difficult to actually enforce those changes. Rape and sexual assault are heinous crimes, and the existing law and order tools we have for dealing with military cases have effectively failed.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a federal law, and before its repeal, male-on-male rape victims could be discharged for engaging in homosexual conduct. One of the main arguments opposing the law’s repeal was the debunked claim that allowing openly gay personnel to serve in the military would increase the rate of male-on-male sexual assault. Given that there is no evidence that the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has negatively impacted morale or good behavior in the military, it is evident that military rape culture cannot and should not be attributed to the existence of homosexuality in the military. And yet this issue has not received the same attention that homophobia has in military reform measures.
Reform at the state level is certainly an indicator of progress, but it’s simply not enough. The relative lack of coverage surrounding the passage of SB 1422 could be a testament to the bill’s near- unanimous support, but it also reflects the lack of public awareness surrounding the issue. The military is a national institution and is subject to federal law. Therefore, we need to look at SB 1422 as part of a greater national effort to end military rape and sexual assault. We also need to compare and contrast its merits with proposed legislation at the national level, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (N.Y.) proposed Military Justice Improvement Act, and the Military Track, Register and Alert Communities Act of 2015 sponsored by California Rep. Jackie Speier, because political discourse is essential to shaping effective public policy. Stronger enforcement mechanisms are necessary to achieve visibility, and ultimately, justice for victims of military rape and sexual assault.