Stop tolerating rape [Commentary]

The U.S. does too little to stem sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses

May 13, 2014|Thomas F. Schaller

At every Washington Capitals home game, hockey fans at the Verizon Center — including platoons of well-heeled defense industry consultants — rise to their feet to salute one soldier, sailor, Marine or airwoman from the "Wounded Warrior" program. Every honoree has served in either Afghanistan or Iraq; many have served multiple tours.

In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of college students with beaming smiles will march across graduation stages to accept their diplomas. In the audience, friends, family members and faculty members — including me — will cheer their accomplishments after four (and often more) years of study.

Millions of young Americans serve proudly in our military or study rigorously on our campuses; many do both. We salute their service and accomplishments. As taxpayers, we wouldn't provide the salaries, health and pension benefits for military members, or subsidize through state budgets the tuition of public college students, if we didn't believe their futures were worth the investment.

Which is why it is scandalous that we continue to permit rape to be so prevalent within our military ranks and on our campuses.

Let's start with universities. As a professor, I was surprised to learn that far too often rape allegations are handled internally by campus authorities. Campus officials should, of course, adjudicate matters of academic impropriety like plagiarism and cheating, or minor campus transgressions like vandalism or drug use. But felonies like rape are another matter. Campus police and administrative authorities wouldn't conduct a murder investigation and then determine whether there was sufficient evidence to convict a potential suspect before turning the case over to police, so why would they sometimes handle rape cases in that manner?

The U.S. Department of Education announced earlier this month that it is investigating 55 universities that may have illegally handled accusations of sexual assault. Although the DOE has not yet determined whether the named universities are guilty, what's disheartening is how many universities made the list. Frostburg State in Maryland and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., are among them.

The Obama Administration just released a report from a special task force on campus rape. The findings are sobering: One in five students (overwhelmingly women) is raped during her time in college, with most attacks occurring during her freshman or sophomore year. Because victims typically know the perpetrators, many rapes go unreported, and only a small fraction result in indictments, much less convictions.

As for the armed services, in Kirby Dick's powerful 2012 documentary, "The Invisible War," military women report being beaten, drugged and raped. Those tragedies are compounded by fact that their superiors often ignored or covered up these incidents. Forty percent of homeless female vets are rape victims.

A Pentagon study also issued earlier this month revealed that sexual assaults reported by U.S. service members jumped 50 percent last year. This statistic is actually supposed to be good news, because reporting has risen despite no evidence that the number of assaults — which includes unwanted advances or gropings, in addition to nonconsensual sodomy and rape — has increased. More victims are coming forward.

Perhaps this fact from the report will shock readers: Although 6.8 percent of military women report being assaulted compared with 1.2 percent of military men, total male victims outnumber female victims because men in uniform vastly outnumber women.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has emerged as a national leader on the issue of military rape. She has pressed fellow members of Congress — fourth-fifths of whom are men — to hold the military brass accountable for this pandemic.

Barracks and dorm rooms should be safe havens for American troops and college students, not frightening places where the threat of date or gang rape is omnipresent. It's incumbent upon military and civilian leaders to protect our young people in and out of uniform by taking reports of assault seriously and punishing the convicted severely.

It's easy to cheer wounded warriors and recent graduates. It's harder to stand up for those whose military and collegiate experience has been forever marred by the trauma of rape, and to rid our ranks of the rapists and those who protect them.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.


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