How the Military's Bro Culture Fails Sexual Assault Victims

Heads up for a can't miss longread: Sara Sorcher at the National Journal wrote a riveting article on how the military's ingrained "bro culture" fails victims of sexual assault throughout their ordeals. Here's a short breakdown of the National Journal's article "How the Military’s 'Bro' Culture Turns Women Into Targets".

The bro culture of the military creates an environment where sexual harassment is conflated with humor, and "trying to be one of the boys" becomes a top priority for female troops.

The article opens with Kayla Williams' account of her experience with sexual assault in the military. Williams is an Arabic linguist who was the only woman in a group of about 20 troops posted to Iraq's Sinjar Mountain in 2003 — and was almost one of the boys.

The conduct of the troops she was with sounds like behavior we like to think is above most middle school boys: pretending to hump everything in sight, "tea bagging" (putting their testicles on each other's faces), and throwing pebbles at one another's testicles.

Sometimes, the men included Williams in their pebble throwing. "[They started] throwing rocks at my boobs when they were throwing rocks at each other," she recalled to the National Journal. "Is that sexual harassment, or are they treating me like one of them? Is it exclusive or inclusive? I can't answer that. It's complicated."

She didn't let it worry her too much, until one night when she went to relieve a guard on duty, who grabbed her hand, pulled out his penis, and tried to make her touch him. Williams was armed, and the guard gave up and left after she refused to have sex with him or give him a blow job — but he was "frighteningly aggressive."

When Williams told men in her unit about the assault, they said she had joined a man's military and asked what she had expected to happen.

The military's long history of gender hierarchy isn't going anywhere — and often makes matters worse.

The military is still characterized by traditions — and attitudes — from its all-male days, creating a gender hierarchy causing some women to complain they are treated as second-class citizens.

The numbers don't help, either: Women make up 15 percent of 1.4 million active-duty service members and 16 percent of officers. Just one of the military's 38 four-star generals or admirals is a woman, and women are barred from front-line combat until 2016.

Stephanie Sacks, author of an essay in a 2005 Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs publication on military culture and sexual assault victims writes that if a woman is assaulted, many men believe "it is at least a little bit her fault because she didn't really belong [in the military] to begin with…. The line goes that if you are going to voluntarily put yourself in the company of large groups of men, especially who are on a deployment and so not having easy access to consensual sex, what do you expect?"

Stringent rules make it harder for victims to defend themselves during an attack and for witnesses to come forward.

"The military is basically a no-sex zone," says Bruce Fleming, a professor at the Naval Academy who argues its strict guidelines make it "nearly impossible" to frame a conversation about consensual sex versus assault.

All military bases are intended to be sex-free: Oral and adultery are crimes, public displays of affection in uniform are prohibited, and officers are not allowed to date, sleep with, or spend too much time with enlisted troops. However, criminalizing everything sexual to put an end to sexual assault detracts attention from the crime that should be the main focus of military regulations.

Another issue is fear of collateral misconduct, which is illustrated by the case of Tia Christopher, then 19-years-old. Christopher was training to be an Arabic cryptologist for the Navy at the Defense Language Institute. Breaking the rules, she invited another service member, a pastor's son who had once took her on a Bible study date, to stop by her room.

"It went from, 'Hey, what are you doing, stop!' to him hitting my head on the cinder-block wall behind my bed," Christopher told the National Journal.

Although two women next door heard the struggle, they both initially refused to support Christopher's allegation, because they had been drinking — another violation of the rules. The military doesn't offer amnesty for "collateral misconduct," and they feared they would be punished for drinking. And they were.

The current court system majorly fails victims, and attempts to reshape it are improperly addressing its flaws.

Of 3,374 reported incidents of sexual assault, military prosecutors won only 238 convictions. Former Air Force JAG officer David Frakt explains the low statistic by saying that "in these he-said, she-said situations, there's no witness, no other physical evidence to corroborate the claims. When the standard is beyond a reasonable doubt, and you have an accused who has a long record of positive military service, no prior history, there's a very high chance of acquittal in that situation."

Plus, cases sometimes don't even make it to trial. Senior commanders are the ones who decide whether or not to refer a case to a court-martial, where the allegation has to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to earn a conviction.

When a commander doesn't want to move a case forward, he or she doesn't have to take action — or else can simply mandate an administrative response, like counseling, to "correct" the accused perpetrator's behavior. Senior commanders can also direct a nonjudicial punishment hearing, where they decide the facts and punishment, which by nature of the hearing means no jail time, no criminal convictions, and no bad conduct discharge.

The military is working to address these issues. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered this month that assault victims get legal representation throughout the judicial process and that senior officials get follow-up reports on assaults and responses.

However, other modifications, like new programs to allow "restricted reporting," fall short. Restricted reporting means victims can get health care without pressing charges or naming their attackers. Although health care following a rape is irrefutably important, programs such as this only serve to enable perpetrators and hold them above punishment, contributing to a deeply flawed culture full of victim-blaming and shaming.

Read the full text of Sorcher's article at the National Journal's site.