Why Soldiers Rape
Culture of misogyny, illegal occupation, fuel sexual
violence in military
number of women soldiers are being sexually abused by their
comrades-in-arms, both at war and at home. This fact has received a
fair amount of attention lately from researchers and the press — and
attention always focuses on the women: where they were when
assaulted, their relations with the assailant, the effects on their
mental health and careers, whether they are being adequately helped,
and so on. That discussion, as valuable as it is, misses a
fundamental point. To understand military sexual assault, let alone
know how to stop it, we must focus on the perpetrators. We need to
ask: Why do soldiers rape?
Rape in civilian life is already unacceptably common. One in six
women is raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, according to
the National Institute of Justice, a number so high it should be
considered an epidemic.
In the military, however, the situation is even worse. Rape is
almost twice as frequent as it is among civilians, especially in
Soldiers are taught to regard one another as family, so military
rape resembles incest. And most of the soldiers who rape are older
and of higher rank than their victims, so are taking advantage of
their authority to attack the very people they are supposed to
of Defense reports show that nearly 90 percent of rape victims in
the Army are junior-ranking women, whose average age is 21, while
most of the assailants are non-commissioned officers or junior men,
whose average age is 28.
violence persists in spite of strict laws against rape in the
military and a concerted Pentagon effort in 2005 to reform
procedures for reporting the crime. Unfortunately, neither the press
nor the many teams of psychologists and sociologists who study
veterans ever seem to ask why.
appears to lie in a confluence of military culture, the psychology
of the assailants and the nature of war.
studies have examined military culture and its attitudes toward
women: one by Duke University Law Professor Madeline Morris in 1996,
which was presented in the paper “By Force of Arms: Rape, War, and
Military Culture” and published in
Duke Law Journal; and
the other by University of California professor and folklorist Carol
Burke in 2004 and explained in her book,
Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane and
the High-And-Tight: Gender, Folklore and Changing Military Culture
(Beacon Press). Both authors found that military culture is more
misogynistic than even many critics of the military would suspect.
Sometimes this misogyny stems from competition and sometimes from
resentment, but it lies at the root of why soldiers rape.
Iraq War veteran reflected this misogyny when he described his
Marine Corp training for a collection of soldiers’ works called
published by Iraq Veterans Against the War in 2008:
The [Drill Instructor’s] nightly homiletic speeches, full of an
unabashed hatred of women, were part of the second phase of boot
camp: the process of rebuilding recruits into Marines.
Burke both show that military language reveals this “unabashed
hatred of women” all the time. Even with a force that is now 14
percent female, and with rules that prohibit drill instructors from
using racial epithets and curses, those same instructors still
routinely denigrate recruits by calling them “pussy,” “girl,”
“bitch,” “lady” and “dyke.” The everyday speech of soldiers is still
riddled with sexist insults.
still openly peruse pornography that humiliates women. (Pornography
is officially banned in the military, but is easily available to
soldiers through the mail and from civilian sources, and there is a
significant correlation between pornography circulation and rape
rates, according to Duke’s Morris. And military men still sing the
misogynist rhymes that have been around for decades. For example,
Burke’s book cites this Naval Academy chant:
Who can take a chainsaw
Cut the bitch in two
Fuck the bottom half
And give the upper half to you…
in all these insults is that women have no business trying to be
soldiers. In 2007, Sgt. Sarah Scully of the Army’s 8th Military
Police Brigade wrote to me in an e-mail from Kuwait, where she was
serving: “In the Army, any sign that you are a woman means you are
automatically ridiculed and treated as inferior.”
Mickiela Montoya, who was in Iraq for 11 months from 2005-2006, put
it another way: “There are only three things the guys let you be if
you’re a girl in the military: a bitch, a ho or a dyke. One guy told
me he thinks the military sends women over to give the guys eye
candy to keep them sane. He told me in Vietnam they had prostitutes,
but they don’t have those in Iraq, so they have women soldiers
The view of
women as sexual prey has always been present in military culture.
Indeed, civilian women have been seen as sexual booty for conquering
soldiers since the beginning of human history. So, it should come as
no surprise that the sexual persecution of female soldiers has been
going on in the armed forces for decades.
• A 2004
study of veterans from Vietnam and all wars since, conducted by
psychotherapist Maureen Murdoch and published in the journal
Military Medicine, found
that 71 percent of the women said
they were sexually assaulted or raped while serving.
• In 2003,
a survey of female veterans from Vietnam through the first Gulf War
by psychologist Anne Sadler and her colleagues, published in the
American Journal of Industrial
Medicine, found that 30
percent said they were raped in the military.
• And a
1995 study of female veterans of the Gulf and earlier wars, also
conducted by Murdoch and published in
Archives of Family Medicine,
reported that 90 percent had been
sexually harassed, which means anything from being pressured
for sex to being relentlessly teased and stared at.
• A 2007
survey by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that homelessness
among female veterans is rapidly increasing as women soldiers come
back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Forty percent of these homeless female veterans say they were
sexually abused while in the service.
Department numbers are much lower. In Fiscal Year 2007, the Pentagon
reported 2,085 sexual assaults among military women, which given
that there are about 200,000 active-duty women in the armed forces,
is a mere fraction of what the veterans studies indicate. The
discrepancy can be explained by the fact that the Pentagon counts
only those rapes that soldiers have officially reported.
courage to report a rape is hard enough for civilians, where
unsympathetic police, victim-blaming myths, and the fear of reprisal
prevent some 60 percent of rapes from being brought to light,
according to a 2005 Department of Justice study.
the military, reporting is much riskier. Platoons are enclosed,
hierarchical societies, riddled with gossip, so any woman who
reports a sexual assault has little chance of remaining anonymous.
She will probably have to face her assailant day after day and put
up with resentment and blame from other soldiers who see her as a
snitch. She risks being persecuted by her assailant if he is her
superior, and punished by any commanders who consider her a
troublemaker. And because military culture demands that all soldiers
keep their pain and distress to themselves, reporting an assault
will make her look weak and cowardly.
these reasons, some 80 percent of
military rapes are never reported, as the Pentagon itself
widespread misogyny in the military actively encourages a rape
culture. It sends the message to men that, no matter how they feel
about women, they won’t fit in as soldiers unless they prove
themselves a “brother” by demeaning and persecuting women at every
opportunity. So even though most soldiers are not rapists, and most
men do not hate women, in the military even the nicest guys succumb
to the pressure to act as if they do.
Of the 40
or so female veterans I have interviewed over the past two years,
all but two said they were constantly sexually harassed by their
comrades while they were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and many
told me that the men were worse in groups than they were
individually. Air Force Sgt. Marti Ribeiro, for example, told me
that she was relentlessly harassed for all eight years of her
service, both in training and during her deployments in 2003 and
I ended up waging my own war against an enemy dressed in the same
uniform as mine. I had a senior non-commissioned officer harass me
on a regular basis. He would constantly quiz me about my sex life,
show up at the barracks at odd hours of the night and ask personal
questions that no supervisor has a right to ask. I had a colonel
sexually harass me in ways I’m too embarrassed to explain. Once my
sergeant sat with me at lunch in the chow hall, and he said, ‘I feel
like I’m in a fish bowl, the way all the men’s eyes are boring into
your back.’ I told him, ‘That’s what my life is like.’
has always been at the root of sexual violence in the military, but
two other factors contribute to it, as well: the type of man who
chooses to enter the all-volunteer force and the nature of the Iraq
economic reasons behind enlistment are well understood. The military
is the primary path out of poverty and dead-end jobs for many of the
poor in America. What is less discussed is that many soldiers enlist
as teenagers to escape troubled or violent homes.
of Army and Marine recruits, one conducted in 1996 by psychologists
L.N. Rosen and L. Martin, and the other in 2005 by Jessica Wolfe and
her colleagues of the Boston Veterans Affairs Health Center, both of
which were published in the journal
found that half the male enlistees
had been physically abused in childhood, one-sixth had been sexually
abused, and 11 percent had experienced both. This is significant
because, as psychologists have long known, childhood abuse often
turns men into abusers.
’70s, when the women’s movement brought general awareness of rape to
a peak, three men — criminologist Menachim Amir and psychologists
Nicholas Groth and Gene Abel — conducted separate but groundbreaking
studies of imprisoned rapists. They found that rapists are not
motivated by out-of-control lust, as is widely thought, but by a mix
of anger, sexual sadism and the need to dominate — urges that are
usually formed in childhood. Therefore, the best way to understand a
rapist is to think of him as a torturer who uses sex as a weapon to
degrade and destroy his victims. This is just as true of a soldier
rapist as it is of a civilian who rapes.
yet proven that abusive men like this seek out the military —
attracted by its violent culture — but several scholars suspect that
this is so, including the aforementioned Morris and Rutgers
University law professor Elizabeth L. Hillman, author of a
forthcoming paper on sexual violence in the military. Hillman
writes, “There is … the possibility that the demographics of the
all-volunteer force draw more rape-prone men into uniform as
compared to civil society.”
according to the Defense Department’s own reports, the military has
been exacerbating the problem by granting an increasing number of
“moral waivers” to its recruits since 9/11, which means enlisting
men with records of domestic and sexual violence.
Furthermore, the military has an abysmal record when it comes to
catching, prosecuting and punishing its rapists. The Pentagon’s 2007
Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military found that 47
percent of the reported sexual assaults in 2007 were dismissed as
unworthy of investigation, and only about 8 percent of the cases
went to court-martial, reflecting the difficulty female soldiers
have in making themselves heard or believed when they report sexual
assault within the military. The majority of assailants were given
what the Pentagon calls “nonjudicial punishments, administrative
actions and discharges.” By contrast, in civilian life, 40 percent
of those accused of sex crimes are prosecuted.
brings us to the question: Do the reasons soldiers rape have
anything to do with the nature of the wars we are waging today,
particularly in Iraq?
Robert Jay Lifton, a professor of psychiatry who studies war crimes,
theorizes that soldiers are particularly prone to commit atrocities
in a war of brutal occupation, where the enemy is civilian
resistance, the command sanctions torture, and the war is justified
by distorted reasoning and obvious lies.
Thus, many American troops in Iraq have deliberately shot children,
raped civilian women and teenagers, tortured prisoners of war, and
abused their own comrades because they see no moral justification
for the war, and are reduced to nothing but self-loathing, anger,
fear and hatred.
these explanations for why soldiers rape are dispiriting, they do at
least suggest that the military could institute the following
and honor more women soldiers. The more respect women are shown by
the command, the less abuse they will get from their comrades.
officers and enlistees that rape is torture and a war crime.
• Expel men
from the military who attack their female comrades.
• Ban the
consumption of pornography.
the use of sexist language by drill instructors.
officers to insist that women be treated with respect.
military counselors to help male and female soldiers not only with
war trauma, but also with childhood abuse and sexual assault.
admitting soldiers with backgrounds of domestic or sexual violence.
And last —
but far from least — end the war in Iraq.
[Editor’s note: This article is adapted from
The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,
to be published by Beacon Press in