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Inside the Military Rape Cult

On One Billion Rising, a day to stop rape and violence against women, Sabrina Rubin Erdely discusses her Rolling Stone report on a tragic tale of sexual assault in the military.

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In many ways, what happened to Petty Officer Second Class Rebecca Blumer after she was roofied and raped by three Army officers she met in a bar was far worse than the attack itself. Her superiors became more intent on prosecuting her for D.U.I. than on finding out what really happened to this promising young intelligence analyst. What’s worse is that her brutal story, recounted in riveting detail by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely in this month’s Rolling Stone magazine, is far from uncommon. The military, as films like The Invisible War and Erdely’s article show, has a rape problem of epidemic proportions. It is estimated that one in three military women are raped by fellow troops, twice the number of their civilian counterparts. One survivor of multiple rapes quoted in Erdely’s article calls the military a “giant rape cult.” In 2010, the DoD found that 19,000 service members were sexually assaulted. Of those a paltry 3,100, or 13.5 percent, were reported, and of those only 17 percent were prosecuted. All too often, attackers receive a slap on the wrist while their victims lose their careers and their futures, sometimes falling into homelessness, despair and suicidal thoughts.

I recently spoke with Erdely about her article, and was surprised to find that despite the horrific experiences of Blumer and other military rape victims, there might just be a glimmer of hope at the end of a long dark road spanning Tailhook, Lackland Air Force, Aberdeen and probably many sexual assault scandals that have never come to light.

Janet Allon: What drew you to the topic of sexual assault in the military?

Sabrina Rubin Erdely: I’ve written a lot on the subject of sexual assault in general, and have long been interested in the way these cases are handled and the way they are perceived by society. In both military sexual assault and civilian sexual assault, there are these rape myths that get in the way of survivors reporting these crimes.

Rape myths are at the heart of sexual assault and how it is handled, but these problems are magnified in the military. The military’s rape epidemic is magnified by military culture.

JA: Describe that culture and how it magnifies the problem.

SRE: For starters, the military is very macho. There is great emphasis placed on strength, for obvious reasons. Weakness is deplored, strength is prized, and femininity equates with weakness. If you can’t do enough pullups, you’re a pussy. Everything is gendered.

What is ingrained in troops is a degradation of women and the ethos is saturated with the harassment of women. It’s a culture of harassment within a closed structure. That message is absorbed and communicated throughout people’s military careers. And this degradation of women paves the way for sexual assault.

This is a problem in general, not just for women. You can’t admit to having any kind of weakness. Soldiers can’t admit to PTSD. Any sort of weakness means you can’t perform your mission. Saying you were a victim of a crime is further evidence that you are not fit for military.

JA: What else in military culture makes it difficult to report having been raped?

SRE: It’s a totally closed and regimented system. People in the military are told what time to do everything. Everything is dictated. This regimentation cannot be overstated: You are told how to walk, how to stand, what time to get up, whether you can walk across the room. It is a very hierarchical system. If the people above you give you orders, like not to report that you were raped, it would be very difficult to go against that. The survivors I spoke to were discouraged from reporting their rapes by their superiors.

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