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Why Do Soldiers Rape?

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Why do some men assume they are entitled to sex in any way they can get it – incest, date rape, marriage trafficking, buying it in prostitution, extorting it in exchange for food in refugee camps or sexually assaulting their fellow soldiers? For more than 100 years, activists worldwide have fought against the victimization of women through sexual violence.

More recently, advocates have turned a floodlight on the perpetrators through programs and public policy focused on exposing, prosecuting and challenging the male demand for sex.

So, too, with military sexual violence. When sexual abuse in the military is investigated, the focus has been largely on the victims, their experience, their characteristics, their numbers and their nightmarish plight in seeking justice within a self-protective male hierarchy. It's time to ask why soldiers rape. It is time to demand answers about the pervasiveness of military rape despite a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault in the military, a ban on selling pornography in military stores and much-touted Pentagon reforms of the reporting procedures for sexual assault.

Women in the Battlefield and the Barracks: A Five Part Series on Two War Fronts for Women Soldiers

Relentless Sexual Harassment: Setting the Stage for Rape

One element of the answer to this question is the relentless sexual harassment in the military environment, which begets a culture of rape. Scholars and investigators who have studied military culture and attitudes toward women [1] have found that hostility toward women pervades military training – often out of deep antipathy for the presence of women in traditionally male space, sometimes stemming from competition, always linking manliness with sexual dominance – and that it functions like a glue to solidify male bonding over women's status as sex objects. Even with a prohibition against drill instructors using racial slurs and curses, military trainers intentionally use crude, sexist epithets to harden and turn young male recruits into desensitized killing machines and to demean women recruits. Use of hateful marching rhymes and taunts of “pussy,” “sissy,” “girl,” “bitch,” “dyke” and “faggot” are common in training. A former National Guard member captured the culture of verbal sexual humiliation in her own experience of a drill sergeant yelling at her: “Does your pussy hurt? Do you need a tampon?”

Carrying over the pervasive woman-baiting in military training into active duty, male soldiers pigeonhole their female counterparts, according to many women soldiers, as “whore,” “bitch” or “dyke” – a bitch if you refuse sex, a whore if you do sleep with soldiers or even have one boyfriend, and a dyke if you have women friends, are bright, or don't like fellow male soldiers. This last “branding” keeps women from bonding with each other, according to many women vets. Peer pressure encourages both sexes to go along with the harassment of women soldiers and the culture of silence and impunity about rape.

A pioneering study of risk factors in the military work environment [2] that are associated with the rape of women soldiers identified a key workplace factor to be the conduct and example of leadership. Where officers in charge tolerated and/or participated in a climate of sexual harassment toward women soldiers, women were raped at significantly higher rates. “The leadership behaviors are a powerful risk factor for violence towards servicewomen,” the authors concluded. Allowing the sexualization of servicewomen – through tolerating sexually offensive language and conduct – significantly increases the women's risk of rape, “suggesting a continuum of sexual violence, with rape the most severe form of coercion.”

Other Factors

In the Iraq War, two other factors likely contributed to the environment of sexual terrorism for women military personnel. One is the kind of men admitted for the all-volunteer force, and the other, the nature of the war and occupation itself.

It is widely known that the military is a job prospect for poor and working-class recruits with few, if any, other options for work, education and benefits. The Greek philosopher Plutarch described this perennial, iniquitous reality some 2000 years ago: “The poor go to war to fight and die for the delights, riches, and superfluities of others.” Lesser known is the high percent of male recruits who come from physically and sexually abusive homes. Two studies – one in 1996 and another in 2005 [3] – of Army and Marine recruits reveal that one of two male enlistees had been physically abused, and 1 in 6 had been sexually abused. Eleven percent suffered both. Other studies show that boys abused in childhood often do in adulthood what was done to them as children, physically and sexually.

Some have probed whether the military – with its popular-culture hype of violence, weapons and macho behavior riddled with sexualized dominance – holds unique appeal for physically and sexually violent young men. Even if true, ordinary, “nice” guys also rape women and girls, and a culture that both glorifies violence and also tolerates sexual harassment and rape is a sexual assault setup for military women. Adding even greater risk for women soldiers in recent wars, since 9/11 the military has increased the number of “moral waivers” for enlistees, including those with records of sexual and domestic abuse, as well as other crimes. In 2006, the total number of moral waivers in the military reached 34,476, or nearly 1 in 5 of all enlisted soldiers, according to the Palm Center at the University of California.

Finally, the nature of the war in Iraq – a war based on lies and warfare in which civilians were often the target of US troops and atrocities, command-sanctioned torture, and repeat deployments of physically and mentally exhausted soldiers – created a climate of disgust for the war, of self-loathing for what one has been done to civilians, of hatred for Iraqis and of a desire to get out. From his study of the My Lai massacre and other atrocities committed by US soldiers in Vietnam, the social psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton posits that a war with no moral core or purpose increases the likelihood that soldiers will commit atrocities. Among these are sexual atrocities to fellow women soldiers.

War Culture at Home

Penny Coleman, author and widow of a Vietnam vet who took his own life, probes whether war itself is a contributory factor to male sexual violence in civilian society. Using World War II data and results from Bureau of Justice surveys of veteran populations, she summarizes findings that support this supposition. Rape rates increased dramatically (more than 27 percent) in US civil society during World War II compared to prewar rates, even while rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter decreased. A similar pattern of formidable increases in domestic violence, rape and sexual assault occurred in US civil society since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, while every other surveyed crime declined except for a small increase in simple assault.

Post-War Spillover of Male Violence Against Women

Using national data on US veterans' crimes, Coleman also speculates whether military service turns young men into sexual predators. The majority of veterans in jail today are there for violence against women and children, a fact that has persisted since the Bureau of Justice began surveying imprisoned veterans in 1981. Yet the incidence of veteran violence against women does not carry over to other crimes. Male veterans are much less likely than their non-veteran counterparts to be in prison for all other violent crimes except sexual crimes.

Journalist Ann Jones pursued this same question – of the spillover of war violence into domestic violence – in her gripping account of post-war violence [4] against women and girls in four war-ruined countries in Africa and in Cambodia and Iraq. With United Nations (UN) and country-wide data on sexual violence as her backdrop, she documents the environment of everyday violence against women and girls after war ends through interviews with them and through photos they took of their lives using cameras she provided. What their pictures and words expose is that soldiers bring the habit of war back to domestic and civilian life. After men stop killing each other, many continue to beat and rape women and girls. UN studies of high rates of post-war violence [5] against females are borne out in Jones' cameos of the six countries. The author's own life was, she writes, “darkened by war.” Her thrice-decorated WWI-veteran father chronically turned his “war-ridden rage and war-honed violence” on her and her mother. This childhood spent with a violent veteran father prompted her, much later in life, to plumb the tragic affinity between war and domestic violence.


Why do soldiers rape? The answer may start with the convergence of an early life of abuse which turns the abused into an abuser, a military culture that glorifies violence and is saturated with hostility toward women from basic training to the battlefield and barracks, and a military leadership that permits, encourages or participates in sexual abuse. Which is to say that soldiers rape because they are socialized in physical and sexual violence, and because they can get away with it.

As for military women, studies of veterans reveal that sexual assault is more traumatizing than combat – that is, more damaging than the traumas of being ambushed, shot at, caught in crossfire, rescuing mangled and dying comrades and dreading driving over a roadside bomb. In the next installment of this series, “Military Sexual Abuse: A Greater Menace than Combat,” we will scrutinize the extent and consequences of military sexual trauma, the reasons for its consummate harm and the self-defense tactics women soldiers employ.

[1] Madeleine Morris. “By force of arms: Rape, war, and military culture.” Duke Law Journal. 45, no.4 (1996): 708, 716-20.

[2] Anne G. Sadler et al. “Factors associated with women’s risk of rape in the military environment.” American Journal of Industrial Medicine 43:262-273 (2003).

[3] Jessica Wolfe, Kiban Turner, et al. “Gender and Trauma as Predictors of Military Attrition: A Study of Marine Corps Recruits,” Military Medicine 170(2005): 12, 1037.

[4] Ann Jones. (2010) “War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women Speak Out from The Ruins of War.” New York: Metropolitan books.

[5] United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. (1998). Women 2000: “Sexual violence and Armed Conflict: United Nations Response.” New York: United Nations.