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Stopping Military Sexual Assault is Men’s Work

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To the men out there who are reading Military Family, take a minute with me.  I want to talk with you.

Imagine the woman in your life that is dearest to you – your wife, perhaps, or girlfriend. Maybe your mother or sister, or an old, dear friend. For only a moment, try to imagine her in a dangerous situation, trapped against her will, and in danger of being raped. It’s a deeply unsettling thought.

The reason I bring this up is that in 2010, more than 3,150 wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters and friends reported that they were sexually assaulted while serving in the United States military. But because there is such a social stigma on sexual assault – and so much misinformation and shame for the victim – more than 4 out of 5 rapes actually go unreported. Which means that nearly 30,000 women service members were sexually harmed in 2010. There are only 215,000 women currently serving on active duty. 15% of them are raped every year.

Gentlemen, this is our doing. It’s men that are responsible for over 99% of sexual assaults. It is men that have this power – and that use it. For the most part, men can overpower even women that are trained to fight; for the most part, a man can subdue a woman that is larger than him because our muscle structure – and density – is generally larger. Socially, we’re reared to be more dominant. Biologically, we’re built for the violence of hunting.

Now, I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone. And if you’re like most men, you haven’t, either. It’s a rare species of scum that’s capable of a crime so vile.

But the point I’m making here is that the horrific crime of sexual assault is not a woman’s problem. It is a man’s problem. It doesn’t stop until we as a sex decide that it stops. And if you think that because you’re a man, you’re safe from being sexually assaulted, you’re wrong. In 2010, more than 27,000 men reported to the Veteran’s Affairs office that they were sexually assaulted – by another man. This is a sexual crime, but it’s not about sex – it’s about domination. And the men that perpetrate it are sick in the worst way.

The military has a deep, awful problem with sexual assault. Almost a third of female veterans report that they were sexually assaulted while serving in the military. It is a failure of the highest degree, and a failure that belongs to every member of the armed services, every time one of our brothers or sisters is allowed to be subjected to such terrifying, shattering, intimate pain. This betrayal within our ranks is one of the most despicable and, tragically, widespread problems our military faces today. When a soldier assaults another soldier, a Marine assaults another Marine – when one of our own severs sacred bonds of trust and solidarity – it is a violation of who we are at our core. It is the worst affront: It is dishonorable, and has no place in our  venerable tradition.

In the great English legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Arthur made each of his knights swear an oath to be “…courageous to the strong and terrible to the wicked. To defend those who call for aid, and to hold all women sacred.” Chivalry was born out of that sentiment, and it guided good, noble men – and especially men in the professions of arms – for many centuries. Chivalry may have gone out of fashion – along with most patriarchal stylings – and this has generally been for the betterment of women. But we military service members still adhere with our lives to most of that oath: We are courageous in the face of the strong, we are terrible to the wicked, and we defend those who need our help.

It’s time to add that last line back into the oath: All women are sacred.

Not in the traditional, chivalrous sense. Rather, men need to understand that the true difference between men and women is that, in a final analysis, we are the violent sex. There are violent women, it is true. But we men are built specifically for violence. And that difference between us – that responsibility that we have and must maintain, specifically because of our ability to do grievous harm – is sacred. A woman’s integrity and trust is sacred. A woman’s body is sacred.

We don’t just have the responsibility to not harm women. We have the responsibility to do everything in our power to make sure other men don’t commit this crime. Our strength is to defend.

The military has stepped up to provide a new program designed to not only combat direct sexual assault, but also the rape of women who are taken advantage of while drunk; it places a new emphasis on the need for men to look out for our female counterparts. It’s called “My Strength is for Defending,” and it indirectly confronts the men in the military and challenges them to realize that they do have power, but that it needs to be used for good. Here’s one of the posters that’s all over the major military bases.

We all know that the brass can – and will – invent any program they can to try and get the results that they want. Some are more effective than others. But a program only succeeds when it manages to get all of us repeating a common idea – when a philosophy becomes part of the very fabric of our operational culture.

Could there be any more urgent need, especially now, at the end of the Iraq War and the unwinding of the war in Afghanistan, our nation’s longest conflict in our history, than to tear open what we are, and who we are, and change the culture so that no more of our brothers and sisters are allowed to be harmed in this way? What could be more important than protecting each and every soul around us? What calling could be higher?

Men, it’s long past time that we stepped up to the plate. It’s not just our job, it’s our duty. You need to talk to your spouses, your children, your subordinates and your leaders. You need to read about sexual assault, and educate the people around you. Change hearts and minds right here in your own hometown, on your own installation, in your own office or shop. Help other men understand what their strength really consists of – and the responsibilities that necessarily accompany it. Your junior soldiers and sailors might not know that when they take that pretty girl home who had one too many shots at the club, they might be raping her if she’s too drunk to make a clear decision. They might not know that if they pay for the date, she doesn’t “owe” them anything. They might not know that if a woman says “No,” she’s not trying to be persuaded otherwise, and if they pressure her into doing something she doesn’t want to, that they are raping her.

They might never have been taught that women are sacred.

This is men’s work. The problem is too widespread, too awful, and the need for it to stop is too urgent. If you were at war, you wouldn’t fall asleep guarding the Listening/Observation Post, you wouldn’t put your fellow soldiers and Marines and sailors and airmen in danger unnecessarily, and you would lay down your life to make sure that all of your fellows were safe.

Let none of us rest until all of us are safe – not only from our nation’s enemies, but from the enemies within our ranks.

(image credit: Woman, Honor Thyself)