On Sunday, I went to watch the documentary, The Invisible War which focuses on the issue of military sexual assault, its effects on survivors, and what the military is (or rather isn’t) doing to address this incredibly pervasive problem. If you haven’t heard of it, make sure you check it when it comes to a city near you. It is an incredibly sobering, intense, and infuriating film. It makes no attempt to sugar coat any of the information or justify why the military hasn’t made significant changes to its culture to reduce the rates of sexual assault or response appropriately to survivors.
Instead, the film allows few dozen survivors the chance to describe the horrible ordeal that they experienced starting with the sexual assault and continuing through the treatment they received from their commanding officers, law enforcement, legal department and the military service overall. The film also reflects on the fact that in addition to the many people featured in the film, there are hundreds of thousands of service members who have been assaulted, many of whom have never reported. The Department of Defense estimates that over 19,000 service members are assaulted each year and yet only 3,128 reports were made in FY2010. This data is a great disservice to every single one of the individuals involved and also to these individuals’ commands, families, and friends which are no doubt affected by the assault as well.
In The Invisible War made a critical point of showing both male and female service members are survivors. I hear so many people cite sexual violence as a reason that women don’t belong in the military. Sexual assault and rape within the military is not a new phenomenon; it has existed throughout its entire history and accounts of abuse can be found from many living male survivors of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. The presence of women in the military is not what created sexual violence. It is the perpetrators, mainly heterosexual men, within the military who learn quickly that they can repeatedly rape men and women, and incur no repercussion. There should be no room in the military for these individuals and those who support them rather than using women as a scapegoat and trying to, yet again, sweep the real problem under the rug.
The multitude of problems that the service members and film makers set forth for the audience served to reinforce many of the barriers I ran up against during my time as a contract Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for the US Navy. The policies, protocols, and positions that have been created do not even start to create the necessary changes needed within the military. Part of this is because of the lack of buy-in from higher officials and part of it is because these programs and positions lack the actual power to make decisions and enforce policies. Setting up policies and protocol and repeating the same mantra of ‘zero tolerance’ does not change a culture. It’s the action that is taken, the accountability that is appropriately distributed between perpetrators and those who shield them, and the increased services and resources that are offered to survivors that will start to change a culture.
And it requires qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable people who are focused on putting the issues of sexual violence and survivors first in positions of power and influence.
Kaye Whitley and Major General Mary Kay Hertog, who are the former and current directors of the DoD SAPR program, are in the position and have the power to enact these changes. Unfortunately, their comments in the film demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of how sexual violence is perpetrated, the motivating forces behind it, and even what a prevention method looks like. Instead they proudly discuss the poster campaign and the need for risk reduction education and dodge many questions about the rates of sexual violence, role of bystanders, the relationship between sexual harassment and sexual violence, and the resources which exist for survivors as that is “outside [their] expertise”. This really does beg the question of what exactly is within their expertise? If we can’t expect the Director of the SAPR program to be involved with every aspect of the issue, then how can we expect the military to make any worthwhile changes?
I think this film did an excellent job of demonstrating how truly devastating military sexual trauma is.
Everyone I talked to after the film (I was there three different nights) was absolutely astonished at the depth and severity of the problem and at the lack of solutions that were available. However, it’s important that we don’t stop here. It isn’t enough to simply raise awareness just as it isn’t enough to simply construct a policy. We need to be diligent in demanding action and keeping the pressure on the individuals in power to make the appropriate changes. Sexual assault and rape are not and should never be considered an occupational hazard of serving one’s country.