WASHINGTON -- More than 40 percent of the female recruits who say they were sexually abused at Aberdeen Proving Ground have acknowledged that they had consensual sex or personal relationships with the accused sergeants, according to Army and congressional sources.
The statistics, compiled recently by the Army, paint a more complex picture of the sex scandal than was previously known. The figures appear to reflect an extensive breakdown in discipline and a freewheeling, collegiate environment at the U.S. Ordnance Center and School.
Of the 56 female current and former recruits who said they were victims, 20 said they had consensual sex with 17 sergeants or instructors. Three other women said they were involved in social relationships with three of the men, in violation of regulations.
The remaining women have leveled charges ranging from sexual harassment and assault to rape and forcible sodomy -- accusations that have forged a public image of the scandal as one exclusively of sergeants assaulting green recruits.
To be sure, consensual sex and social relationships between superiors and subordinates in the military are strictly prohibited. And the burden of responsibility for such violations falls on the senior-ranking person, not on the recruit.
But, for the Army, the sexualized atmosphere that apparently existed at Aberdeen makes a solution more difficult than simply rooting out a few obvious culprits. With consensual sex, some top officials say, blame is not always self-evident.
"Absolutely, it's more complex," said Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican who chairs a House subcommittee on military personnel. "I could walk down the street in Baltimore and say, 'We have victims of consensual sex.' People's faces would begin to wrinkle. 'Victims of consensual sex? What are you talking about? Is it someone underage?' "
"It's something we have to work through, absolutely," said Buyer, a major in the Army Reserve.
Twenty male sergeants and instructors were relieved of duty after the scandal at the school broke in November. A dozen of them are awaiting courts-martial or have had their cases resolved. The others remain under investigation.
None of the female recruits at Aberdeen has faced disciplinary action or is being investigated as a result of the scandal. And military experts differ on whether they should be held liable for their actions.
Judith Stiehm, a Florida International University political scientist who has written widely on the military, said she believes the recruits are victims in any case of voluntary sex. Despite the new Aberdeen statistics, Stiehm asserted, "consensual sex" is a misnomer. What it boils down to, she said, is simply "recruit abuse."
"I would not say it was consensual at all," Stiehm said. "You're constantly under the thumb of your drill instructor. Even if the young women were extremely seductive, it's such a taboo that it shouldn't happen at all."
But Brenda L. Hoster, a sergeant major who left the Army last year after accusing the service's top enlisted man of sexually abusing her, said she has staked out a "middle ground" on the issue.
By virtue of their leadership roles, Hoster said, the sergeants are primarily at fault and should have had "the integrity and the moral courage" to say no and to "put the private on notice."
But Hoster said she believes that the female recruits should face punishment as well.
"If she admits she agreed to do this, she's just as wrong," said Hoster, a 22-year veteran and former drill instructor. "Even if they're recruits, they're not above the rules."
Hoster suggested that a recruit who could get away with improper behavior during training might continue it throughout her career. "Those are the ones that make the rest of us look bad," she said.
Charles C. Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University who has long studied the military, agreed that female recruits should be disciplined, too.
"Consensual sex is the elephant in the living room nobody wants to talk about," Moskos said. "It brings into play mixing men and women in the same unit. I think it's one of the most significant issues in the military."
Buyer, who plans hearings beginning next month on issues that will include whether men and women should train together, suggested that the military would rather avoid these "hot issues."
Abuse vs. consent
Ponda Brown, the wife of one sergeant implicated in the Aberdeen scandal, objects to a double standard. While her husband is tagged as an abuser and his 13-year Army career has crumbled, she complained, the female privates are avoiding accountability for their actions.
"How can you abuse something that's consensual?" said Brown, the wife of Sgt. 1st Class Theron Brown, who received a discharge in lieu of court-martial and was charged with fraternization, sodomy and adultery. "The higher ranks are getting punished, and the lower ranks are not getting punished."