Risk and Sexual Assault, Where is it Safe to be a Woman?

My uncle, like most fathers, is proud of his oldest daughter. She recently graduated from Virginia Tech with an engineering degree and is starting her career as a commissioned officer in the Navy. My cousin’s service starts at a time when the military is under increased scrutiny because of their failure to prevent and prosecute sexual assault.

2 women

A vulnerable group?

My first reaction when I heard the news was concern. The military is not a safe place to be a woman. If you have managed to miss the statistics on sexual assault in the military, here is a key one: 1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted while serving in the military and only 14% of incidences are reported. A few weeks ago, I caught part of The Invisible War on PBS. It was shocking and depressing and totally worth watching if you have the time.

The documentary shares the stories of male and female victims, many of them being treated for PTSD triggered by their abuse not their  time in combat. The victims are of varying ranks and stations–from the overseas bases to domestic ones to elite military academies. The one thing they have in common is the treatment they received when they reported the assaults. Their superiors doubted them, intimidated them, and their careers were hurt because they were assaulted. They also all agree that the worst part was being unable to avoid their assailant. They continued to work and live in close quarters with the person who raped or sexually assaulted them. The alleged thrived without fear of prosecution while the victims were punished.


Are these women safe?

Terrible stuff. It makes me feel like my cousin is doomed. But, wait, wasn’t I doomed at one point? In college, I often heard scary statistics–1 in 5 women will experience a sexual assault (or attempted one) while in college.  In fact, students have filed a complaint with the federal government because a number of schools failed to do enough to prevent and punish sexual assault.

In April of 2011, the US Education Department released a “Dear Colleague” letter outlining schools’ (primary and up) responsibilities under Title IX to create an environment free of sex-based discrimination–including sexual assault. The complaints filed by Occidental, Swarthmore, Dartmouth, and others alleges their schools failed to meet their Title IX obligations. The stories students share are eerily similar to those shared by military victims. The deans didn’t believe them. They were discouraged from filing an official complaint against their assailant. Nothing was done to ensure they wouldn’t be forced to interact with the accused on a daily basis–in the classroom or dorms.

Under the new interpretations of Title IX, schools should use the “preponderance of evidence” standard (i.e. it is more likely than not that a sexual assault occurred). I think it is great news that the department of education is holding schools responsible for combating the culture of rape that exists in our schools. As so many recent cases have demonstrated, there is too much victim blaming when it comes to sexual assault. There seems to be a natural impulse to protect the accused from false allegations rather than to protect the victim from assault; so a cultural shift away from this seems in order.

Why do I feel that college is a safe place for women and the military is not?  Much like the case of breast cancer, I worry these statistics are used to reconfirm the suspicion that women are vulnerable and need to be protected. Victims should be protected but not by carrying the burden of prevention. In the military and in schools, the burden should be carried by the perpetrators. Rather than warning everyone of the risk of being assaulted more should be done to increase the risk associated with sexually assaulting someone. If you engage in nonconsensual sexual activity you should feel that the odds are you will get caught and punished. If only 1 out of 3 rapist were convicted!

real risk

The real danger

Obviously that isn’t the way the system works currently but  hopefully one day it will. In the mean time, I just need to remember 2 out 3 women serving in the military do not experience sexual assault. Odds are my cousin will be just fine and the appropriate response is pride. After all she got her college degree without debt and is starting a new career in her chosen field–impressive at a time when more than 50% of college grads are un- or under-employed.


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