Skip to content Skip to footer

The Bad, the Worse and the Horrible on Rape in the Military

The Senate committee on rape in the military ranged from bad to worse as many attempted to justify criminal sexual acts as a consequence of youth.

The Senate Armed Services Committee held hearings on Tuesday into the epidemic of rape in the armed forces. Rape in the military is at a horrific level, and while the military has been arguing that it can clean up its act, the numbers belie that argument. In 2012 alone, there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the US armed forces, numbers that are an outrage to pretty much any thinking person.

Fortunately for senior military officials, the hearing was not just attended by thinking people. Senate Republicans showed up as well. And their responses to the spate of sexual assaults ranged from clueless to downright despicable.

The Bad

In defense of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., he does seem to understand that the sexual assault crisis in the military is a serious problem that needs attention.

“At its core, this is an issue about defending basic human rights but it’s also a long-term threat to the strength of our military. We have to ask ourselves: if left uncorrected, what impact will this problem have on recruitment and retention of qualified men and women?” McCain asked during the hearing. “I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We’ve been talking about this issue for years and talk is insufficient.”

Very true, and while it’s sad to say McCain deserves credit for finding rape despicable, given his peers in the GOP, he really does. Unfortunately, McCain’s short-term fix is just flat wrong.

“Just last night, a woman came to me and said her daughter wanted to join the military and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so. I could not,” McCain said.

Look, I get it: if my daughter was older and wanted to serve in the military, I would absolutely be concerned about sexual assault. But when we say that women should stay out of the military because of rape, we’re really giving the rapists what they want. Rape is more about power than sex, and rape in the military is all about demonstrating to women, in the most graphic and terrible way, that they are not welcome.

It’s the same impulse that leads us to tell women they shouldn’t walk alone at night. Okay, maybe it’s good advice, but when we focus on that, we lose sight of the fact that victims of rape do not bear responsibility for being raped — their assailants do.

Now, if McCain’s had been the worst statement of the day, it would hardly merit comment. However, McCain’s ineptitude looks angelic compared to two of his fellow senators.

The Worse

According to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., maybe the problem isn’t that men in the military are raping women. Maybe the real problem is porn.

“Mr. Chairman, I’d just add a letter, a document here that was given to me from Morality in the Media,” said Sessions during the debate. “Pat Truman used to be in the Department of Justice. I knew him when he was there. He points out that, a picture here of a newsstand and an Air Force base exchange with, you know, sexually explicit magazines being sold. So, we live in a culture that’s awash in sexual activity. If it’s not sold on base, it’s right off base. There are videos and so forth that can be obtained, and it creates some problems, I think.”

Now, it goes without saying, but the vast majority of people who watch or read porn in some form do not go out and rape people. Indeed, there’s some evidence that the wide availability of pornography online has helped to reduce the rate of sexual assault, though obviously, there’s a question of whether it’s causation or correlation at work.

Additionally, sexual assault in the military has been a problem long before porn was widely available. The newly-released book What Soldiers Do documents a wave of rape and sexual assault by American soldiers in France during World War II. Those soldiers weren’t induced to rape by a Playboy at the PX; Playboy didn’t exist then.

Sessions is conflating sex with rape. A soldier who buys a smutty video isn’t then turned into a wild, uncontrollable rape fiend. They’re much more likely to watch it and go to bed by himself. Or herself.

Still, at least there might be a tiny sliver of something useful in this. It’s conceivable that pornography could be used as part of sexual harassment, as part of a pattern to make the military unwelcome to women. It’s kind of not the point of the hearing, but I can at least see it. Nobody managed to top the worst statement of the day, the week, and possibly the year.

The Horrible

“The young folks who are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. “Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we’ve got to be very careful how we address it on our side.”

In three short sentences, Chambliss manages to declare rape an intractable problem that is a natural consequence of being 20 years old, and nothing we want to rush to correct in any way, shape or form.

This is news, I think, to most people who are older than 17. For most of us, either those of us living through those hormonally-crazed years or those on the other side of them, we can acknowledge that there was a point in time where we were perhaps more driven by sex than we are now. But for the vast majority of us, we can look back on that period in our lives as a time when we didn’t rape anyone. Indeed, as a time when we weren’t even remotely tempted to rape anyone.

Chambliss’ argument boils down to “boys will be boys.” Guys have hormones, these hormones make us rape women, what are you gonna do? Well, for one thing, not rape people. Guys and gals with hormones manage to make that difficult choice every day.

But maybe rapists are different. Maybe their hormones are ridiculously high, right? Wrong. There’s no significant correlation between testosterone level and propensity to rape. Indeed, a 1976 study indicated that non-rapists actually had slightly higher levels of testosterone than rapists did.

Now, are two 20-year-olds more likely to hook up randomly than two 40-year-olds? Probably. But that’s just it — they’re more likely to have sex. And rape is not about sex.

If you doubt that, consider this: nearly half of the victims of sexual assault in the military in 2011 were victims of male-on-male sexual assault. And no, before you leap to that conclusion, this was not caused by gay men raping straight men. Those numbers showed no significant change before or after repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

No, rape is about asserting dominance — and rapists are more than willing to assault men in violent, degrading ways, as long as they think they can get away with it. It’s about shaming and belittling other people, teaching them “their place.”

That’s why Chambliss’ statement is so abhorrent. It’s not just that he says that men can’t help but rape — a lie that is far more anti-male than anything feminists could ever come up with — but that he uses this to justify doing nothing. In short, Chambliss looked at men abusing men and women alike, and he’s siding with the abusers. Even on a day with bad statements from his fellow Republicans, this is an entirely different level of awful.

​​Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.

Truthout is widely read among people with lower ­incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.

We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we only have hours left to raise over $9,000 in critical funds.

We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?