Let's say your high school aged kid is thinking that he or she may want to serve our country by enrolling in a service academy or enlisting in the armed forces. It is likely that you might feel both proud and worried about your child's future safety. But are you more worried about your kid being blown up in Afghanistan or being sexually assaulted by a fellow service member? It's tough to know where the biggest danger lies, since it seems like every time we turn on the news, another episode of serious sexual misconduct is being uncovered in one or another of the service branches -- the latest case being the clandestine bathroom/shower tapings of women at West Point. Sadly, this incident rides the heels of Gen. David Petraeus stepping down due to an affair with his biographer, which rode on the heels of a scandal involving U.S. Secret Service agents more focused on hiring Colombian prostitutes than on maintaining the president's safety. The list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, at least a few military leaders are seemingly intent on acting as if this problem does not exist. For evidence we need look no further than Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh's recent Senate testimony, in which he blamed the spike in military sexual assault reports on the "hookup culture" of our nation's young people.
General, if that's the case, why aren't we seeing a spike in sexual assault reports outside the armed forces?
Welsh has apologized for his remarks, but his cavalier attitude is more than slightly telling. The simple fact is that for decades we've relied on the military chain of command to handle sexual assault incidents. If you are assaulted, you report it to your commanding officer and he or she decides how to proceed. However, commanding officers are not trained investigators, they are not instructed in military or civil law, and they are typically (and rightfully) far more interested in the best military outcome than in criminal justice. Because of these factors, they are poorly equipped to handle episodes of sexual misconduct -- especially with no outside overseer in place to supervise the process. Basically, if your commanding officer likes or needs you, you might get a fair shake. If not, you're probably out of luck.
The drama playing out in the media (and elsewhere) in regard to the West Point videos is merely the tip of the iceberg regarding a concern that is both under-recognized and misunderstood by military leaders. It's been more than two decades since the culture of military sexual assaults became public knowledge (in 1991 more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted at least 83 women and seven men while attending the annual Tailhook symposium in Las Vegas), yet the military's underwhelming investigatory process remains largely unchanged. To me, that one fact is as alarming and telling as Gen. Welsh's ill-advised Senate testimony, if not more so. Simply put, the military's top brass does not wish to acknowledge or address the ongoing issue of rape and other sexual misconduct within its ranks.
As a therapist, author, and treatment expert focusing primarily on problematic sexual behaviors, I've had the honor of being asked to provide multiple educational programs for both therapists and chaplains within the U.S. military -- trainings focused on sexual misconduct -- and I can assure you that this problem is not just a matter of boys being boys or a couple of service members blowing off steam while on short-term leave. While providing numerous clinical trainings on multiple military bases I have been told firsthand about incidents (and underreporting) of:
- Sexual harassment up to and including rape of male and female soldiers
- Male-on-male rape in barracks, usually conducted as a demonstration of power
- Commanding officers routinely procuring prostitutes for male soldiers on short-term leave, with such activity viewed as both a rite of passage and the best way to "chill out" after active duty
- Soldiers using hook-up apps and downloading porn on government-owned computers and digital devices both on and off duty
- Dangerously undertrained mental health providers being asked to treat sexual offenders sentenced to time in the brig
- Officers routinely encouraging the use of porn and masturbation to relieve the stress of active duty
- Rape and other sexual misconduct involving civilians, sometimes in areas with already hostile local populations
- Violent attacks by local populations aimed at military bases outside the U.S. in direct retaliation to a recent rape or sexual harassment of local civilians
As of now, sexual misconduct issues in the military are routinely swept under the rug. And even when they are addressed, they are typically dealt with idiosyncratically (and therefore ineffectively) depending on who is in command on any given day. For as long as the military continues to insist on using its chain of command system to hear, investigate and prosecute assault claims from within its ranks, this will be the case, especially when a significant percentage of the alleged perpetrators are part of that command chain. (Keep in mind that in the Tailhook case, all of the purported offenders were officers.)
I have suggested to many individuals at many levels of government that the military should create a separate legal process to handle rape and other sexual misconduct claims, or at the very least create an outside bureaucracy to oversee the current process and step in when necessary. It appears that at least a few elected officials now agree. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has stated that the military should create a separate legal process for these offenses, and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill has sponsored legislation that would remove a commander's ability to overturn military sexual assault convictions. Both senators are members of the Armed Services Committee.
The good news is that it appears the military might finally be paying attention. Last year, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta established special victims units in each branch of the military and ordered that sexual assault allegations be reported to a higher level commander. However, we don't yet know if these new policies are genuine efforts at change or just lip service by high ranking military officials intent on maintaining the status quo. I am hopeful for the former, though history tells me to expect the latter. That said, I must remember at times like this that while it's very easy to blame a flawed system that I am not truly part of (only occasionally as a consultant), the military has an incredibly tough line to walk in terms of deconstructing morality. How do you teach someone that it is acceptable to kill another human being in order to defend your own life and your country while at the same time provide sensitivity training on issues of human dignity, respect, and the intrinsic rights of all human beings? Not an easy task. Not for anyone.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. Mr. Weiss has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, and the Today Show, among many others.