The title of this post is quite literally based on a 2006 article in the Journal of South African Studies. This article exposed post-apartheid sexual assault against women in South Africa. I thought of it when I was listening to my favorite morning radio show The Takeaway. One of this week’s “takeaways” was the prevalence and persistence of sexual assault against women in the military. As I was listening, the old, yet familiar tropes of patriarchy kept playing again and again.
Representative Loretta Sanchez, the highest ranking woman in the House Armed Services Committee, provided information about the testimonies brought forth to congress this week. I was awestruck by the following:
Not only are they commanded [to go to the bathroom with a buddy at night], the commanders know. They know that these women are being raped. And by the way, once you’re identified as someone [that has] been raped, word gets around and then you’re raped more often…We need to prosecute these people and put them behind bars.
Apparently, 30% of women serving in the military have “reported” sexual assault. However, added to that percentage is the failure to report rate, as it has become an a priori fact that the crime of rape is the most under-reported crime in America. And the military is simply a microcosm of American society. Therefore, sexual assault in the military, and the military's ambivalence to it, shouldn't surprise me or any other American citizen, since a woman is raped every six minutes in the U.S., and a woman is battered every fifteen seconds. Just as female soldiers are required to travel in pairs to go to the bathroom, so are civilian women in America encouraged to travel in pairs or groups at night for fear of dangerous “predators”; those predators are always male, and the implication is that they are sexual predators. There is an acceptance in our society that men are sexually violent and are bound to rape women. As such, it is the responsibility of women to protect themselves against the inevitable. Consequently, if a woman is raped, she was careless and failed to protect herself.
Furthermore, patriarchal societies condone, and at times, encourage violence against women as a means of controlling and subordinating them. I argue that men are of the opinion that the presence of women in combat is a violation of a patriarchal boundary. Rape and other forms of sexual assault are a means of socially controlling and disciplining women who have transgressed that boundary.
Sadly, whenever human rights organizations confront the military with these harsh realities, military officials divert attention away from the sexual assault itself and focus on the overall question of whether or not women should serve in combat at all. By doing so, aren't they really affirming that men are using sexual violence against women as a means of social control? And doesn't American culture reinforce or even engender such attitudes?