Rape in the US Military

“Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.”[1] (LA Times, 2008)

Despite the shocking nature of this statistic, and the fact that we’ve known about it for years, the issue of rape within the military is still critically overlooked. Even within feminist academic scholarship, it is overshadowed by studies of the use of rape in conflict, by one military against its enemies. But when you hear the numbers, and the stories, it’s impossible to ignore.

The documentary film “The Invisible War” (2012) can be credited with doing much to raise awareness of this issue, and indeed influence changes in policy. According to the film, over 20% of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. military.[2] The Department of Defense (DOD) itself reports that 3,230 female soldiers were sexually assaulted in 2009, and also estimates that 80% of survivors do not report; if you do the math, that puts the estimate for 2009 alone at 16,150.[3]

These brutal assaults have life-long consequences for the survivors, including depression, suicide or attempted suicide, relationship problems and homelessness (40% of homeless female veterans were raped while serving).[4] Studies have shown that military rape has long-term quality of life problems; victims are “more likely to report chronic health problems, prescription medication use for emotional problems, failure to complete college, and annual incomes less than $25,000”.[5] The rate of PTSD is higher among women raped in the military than in men who’ve been in combat.[6] Psychological experts explain that the emotional and mental effects of sexual assault are even worse for military victims than civilians because of the deep level of trust female soldiers place in their ‘brothers’ in the army, which is then brutally violated.[7]

The documentary follows the story of one particular survivor, Seaman Kori Cioca of the U.S. Coast Guard, who was raped by her supervisor after weeks of threatening behaviour (which she reported to senior officers and was ignored). Cioca’s attacker hit her in the face during the assault and dislocated her jaw. Afterwards, she needed a partial bone replacement – her doctor asked if she’d been in a car accident. Cioca applied to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs for medical cover for the necessary surgery; she was stalled for over a year before being denied any military help and her military pension – because she left two months short of the required two years. Five years later, she has still had no medical help.

Cioca’s story is indicative of the crux of the problem in the U.S. military: the way the military handles reports of rape. Although the army claims to fully investigate reports of assault, survivors tell a different story. They report being treated as liars and not being taken seriously, case files and evidence (such as rape kits) are routinely “lost”, and female military criminal investigators are told they are not allowed to investigate rape claims because they are “too sympathetic” to the victim.[8] Punishment for the attackers is extremely rare; of those referenced in the documentary, none were fired, many have since been promoted, and one was even awarded ‘Airman of the Year’ during the rape investigation[9]. This is particularly problematic in the case of rape, as it is a repetitive crime and those which ‘get away with it’ will do it again – in units where sexual harassment is tolerated, incidents of rape triple.[10] On the other hand, many of the women who report these attacks are themselves punished, for example discharged without benefits, charged with adultery (when the attacker is married, but the victim is not), or other administrative action.[11]

The main problem identified by the documentary is the fact that all power lies with the unit commander. The commander has total discretion over action taken against attackers; there is no independent justice system. The following statistic reveals why this is such a hurdle to justice for survivors: 25% of servicewomen didn’t report their rape because the person to report to was the rapist.[12] Lawyer Susan Burke filed a lawsuit against the DOD on behalf of 16 victims to try to change the way the military handles rape reports legally. The lawsuit was dismissed, ruling that rape is an “occupational hazard” of military service.[13]

Although, as a result of watching the documentary, the U.S. Secretary of Defense took the decision to prosecute away from unit commanders[14], some scholars have argued that this will not be sufficient to solve the problem. Hillman, for example, places the ‘blame’ with military law itself. She argues that military legal precedent of past rape cases has “created an impression of female vulnerability and male dominance [and] lessened the standards of accountability to which servicemembers are held” which “disempower[s] women and routinze[s] male sexual dominance” and articulates certain “military norms of gender relations, power dynamics, and individual vulnerability”.[15] The film itself notes that the military’s recruitment strategy is hypermasculinised and their ‘rape prevention’ programme engages in blatant victim blaming.[16]

Others have argued that military sexual assault is the result of a military culture and environment which encourages and allows sexualised and violent language, hypermasculinity, the acceptance of violence, the objectification of people, obedience to authority and group cohesion which socialises “negative normative sexual and gender beliefs”.[17] Until this aggressive and hypermasculinised culture is challenged, military rape is likely to remain a shameful stain on the U.S. Military.


Watch the trailer for ‘The Invisible War’ below:

[2] The Invisible War

[3] The Invisible War

[4] The Invisible War

[5] Anne G. Sadler et al, “Health-related consequences of physical and sexual violence: women in the military”, Obstetrics & Gynecology 2000 96:3

[6] The Invisible War

[7] The Invisible War

[8] The Invisible War

[9] The Invisible War

[10] The Invisible War

[11] The Invisible War

[12] The Invisible War

[13] The Invisible War

[14] The Invisible War

[15] Elizabeth L. Hillman, “Front and Center: Sexual Violence in U.S. Military Law”, Politics & Society 2009 37:101, p.103.

[16] The Invisible War

[17] Jessica Turchik and Susan M. Wilson, “Sexual Assault in the U.S. military: A review of the literature and recommendations for the future”, Aggression and Violent Behaviour 2010 15:4.


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Rape in the US Military

  1. Pingback: ‘Non-essential, luxury items’: The Tampon Tax | Global Gender Justice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s