Sexual assault in U.S. military reflects culture of bullying

March 19, 2014 at 5:18 PM
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ALEXANDRIA, Va., March 19 (UPI) -- The acceptance of bullying in U.S. culture contributes to sexual assault in the armed forces, experts say.

Mary Ellen O'Toole, editor-in-chief of Violence and Gender and retired FBI profiler and criminal investigator analyst led a roundtable discussion with Christopher Kilmartin of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Col. Jeffery Peterson of Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Va., discussed specific factors that likely contribute to the sexual assault problem.

Kilmartin and Peterson agreed there is no recent increase in U.S. military sexual assaults, but the assaults are getting more attention and now that the secretary of defense and the commander in chief are making strong statements condemning military sexual assault.

"The evidence is that the population of people who come into the U.S. military have more experience with sexual assault than the general population, both as offenders and as survivors. Survivors are at statistically increased risk of being revictimized, and offenders are at an increased risk for reoffending," Kilmartin said at the roundtable.

"Ninety percent of acquaintance rapes are committed by serial offenders. And so, they come into the military at greater risk to begin with, and there is more sexual assault in the military than in the general population."

The military is a microcosm of U.S. society and American culture is filled with sexism. In particular, the way we raise boys, Kilmartin said.

"The worst thing you can say to a little boy is, 'You run like, dance like, act like, look like, throw like a girl,' And so, we tell boys that being like a woman diminishes you. As a result, we give boys, very early on, a real disrespect of girls and women."

The other thing that is happening in U.S. culture is an increased acceptance of bullying. If you watch reality television or so-called professional wrestling, which is neither professional nor is it wrestling, it is all about dominance, Kilmartin said.

These are men who conspire to incapacitate women with alcohol, who do not intervene in dangerous situations, and who engage in a conspiracy of silence after someone commits an assault, but most are not directly involved as either offenders or victims, but are silent bystanders.

Getting people to act when they see dangerous situations, is very much a part of prevention efforts, Kilmartin said.

In addition, there is inadequate support for survivors' feelings when the rapist is not held legally accountable, he added.

"We can stop 75 percent to 80 percent of [sexual assaults] tomorrow if we can remove or reform the harassing leaders and train the good people in leadership, who are in the vast majority, to learn about the issue and teach those under their command about it -- as opposed to outsourcing the training -- thus demonstrating their commitment to stopping military sexual assault," Kilmartin said.

Peterson said with the strong masculine orientation of the U.S. military is that individuals who might have some level of proclivity for this kind of behavior but who may otherwise not engage in it; then when you put them in an environment that they perceive to be permissive, they might engage in these kinds of criminal behaviors.

"I believe you can take a person who, on the margin, may not have committed these kinds of crimes and turn them into somebody who will," he said.

The transcript of the roundtable is published in the preview issue of Violence and Gender.

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