Sexual Violence Not a Military 'Cancer,' but a Crisis at All Levels of Society

As I rode the train to work this morning, I read an article in the Express entitled “Can the Military Cure Its ‘Cancer?’" While I walked from the train to my office, I pondered the word choice – cancer – as if to suggest that sexual assault in the military is some sort of foreign object that is draining and killing an otherwise healthy body. Then I debated the necessity of the word-play game I was having in my head, when there are actually so many awful, real atrocities happening...right now. Fast forward all of 15 minutes later and I read a post from Jezebel entitled "If Comedy Has No Lady Problems, Why Am I getting So Many Rape Threats?” I see two strong connections between these articles, beyond the fact that they’re both about sexual violence: sexual assault is a problem in all sectors of our society and our language is contributing to that problem.

First, I recently had the privilege of meeting with a high-ranking military official to discuss sexual assault prevention. I gained invaluable insight during this meeting, not only about military response to sexual assault, but also about myself. I assumed this man would be brutish and stupid when it came to the topic at hand. I was not prepared to hear him acknowledge a need for prevention that includes more than “new” trainings. I was surprised when he connected the trauma of combat to the trauma of rape. And quite frankly, I felt like a real asshole when he said that the military was a reflection of society, because I went into that meeting with a long-held belief that the military should, but more importantly could, do something that the rest of this world has yet to be able to do: end sexual assault.

The news stories that I read, see, and hear about seem to exceptionalize sexual assault to whatever community it has most recently and most publicly reared its ugly head. When I hear people talk about sexual assault issues, it is often in the domain of what others are doing wrong. The fact is that sexual assault, sexual violence, rape, sexual abuse, incest, sexual harassment, power-based violence, and any other descriptive word we’d like to use is not just one community’s or population’s or institution’s problem. It is going on everywhere – from sea to shining sea, in the hood and in the board room, in athletic departments and in the science lab, from the mouths of politicians to the jokes of comedians – and it is affecting all of us.

This brings me to my second point, about why our words matter. For me, the word “cancer” conjures an invasion with murky origins, unclear intentions, and even more uncertain outcomes. Sexual violence is not a “cancer” in the military or in the rest of society. It is bred out of an unhealthy, violent masculinity that we spoon feed to boys and young men; it is one of many tools that are used to marginalize people, and it results in hindering the development and well-being of every person and at every level of society. So when we hear people exercising their First Amendment right – whether it is a comedian, or a family member, or a co-worker – we share an equal right to tell that person that we disagree, that their language is harmful, and that sexual assault is no laughing matter.

A couple of years ago we blamed the horrific gang rape of a girl in Chicago on the community’s socio-economic make-up. At Penn State and in Steubenville, the appalling abuses were the fault of athlete culture. The gang rapings and sexual brutality in India, more recently, or in Darfur, lest we should forget, were attributed to a cultural devaluation of women that the United States is supposedly immune to. Today, we’ve turned our attention to the military, where the structure and chain of command support, enable, and foster sexual violence.

Our collective analysis of how and why each of these communities allows sexual assault to occur may be spot on; however, when we only view this problem through a lens that is merely focusing on whichever group has been nominated to the hot seat, we allow ourselves and each other to point fingers and deflect accountability. We do this instead of looking at how we simultaneously treat sexual violence as so awful that it is unimaginable and so common that it is either un-noteworthy or impossible to fix. Examples of this can be found not only in our actions, but in our words as well. We cannot afford to be surprised when a community bears what society has created, because too many people are being hurt in the process. While it may be our right to use words that intentionally and unintentionally try to invalidate the violations so many people have experienced or misrepresent just how salient sexual assault really is, doing so is not in line with our responsibility as citizens of this world to uphold and protect each other’s human rights.

Rachel_FriedmanRachel Friedman
Deputy Director
Men Can Stop Rape