This year’s Defense Department annual report on sexual assault revealed the disturbing trend that rates of sexual assault in the military rose by 34 percent between 2010 and 2012 and that only 3 percent of assaults were prosecuted last year. The personal stories of survivors further illuminate a shameful failure to effectively address this problem so far, and highlight the need for reform.
However, a number of dangerous misconceptions exist about the nature of the military’s sexual assault problem, propagated largely by opponents of reform. A recent column by the Center for American Progress dismantles some of these myths:
1. MYTH: Lifting the ban on women in combat will contribute to higher rates of sexual assault.
FACT: Opponents of women in the combat arms argue that higher sexual assault will increase once the ban is lifted. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military, disagrees. He is on the record stating, “When you have one part of the population that is designated as ‘warriors’ and one part that is designated as something else, that disparity begins to establish a psychology that — in some cases — led to that environment [of sexual assault].”
2. MYTH: Military sexual assault is women’s issue.
FACT: More than half of all victims of sexual assault in the military are men. Although men report these incidents far less frequently, sexual assault is a ¬military-wide problem.
3. MYTH: Gay men are the problem.
FACT: The data show that repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has not contributed to an increase of sexual assaults committed against men. Furthermore, the military has reported time and again that repeal of the law has had no negative impact on military readiness or national security.
4. MYTH: The data on sexual assault in the military overstates the problem.
FACT: Opponents have raised questions about the Defense Department’s data and worried that a broad definition of sexual assault could exaggerate the problem, but this is not the case. Their report defined sexual assault narrowly to include only attempted and completed physical offences, and excluded non-physical acts of sexual harassment, though those are also extremely important aspects of the military’s sexual assault problem.
5. MYTH: Offender accountability alone will fix the military’s sexual assault problem.
FACT: Military sexual assault does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in a military system that has entrenched institutional sexism. Last month the director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, stated that sexism and harassment in the military have created a “permissive environment” in which sexual assaults can occur. While many men in the military are affected by sexual assault, service women are proportionally at a much higher risk, and the underlying culture of hostility toward women must be addressed.
As Congress and military leaders collaborate on solutions to this serious problem, they must not fall prey to myths and misconceptions about military sexual assault that serve to distract from or change the conversation.
Our guest blogger Hannah Slater is an intern with LGBT Progress.