A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: Susan J. Blumenthal

Rape in the Military: “Is this a joke?”

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo

For the past several years, the Forum on Law, Culture, and Society has hosted a film festival at Fordham Law School featuring movies that, in some way, focus on the intersection between law and society. After each screening, the Forum’s director, law professor and author Thane Rosenbaum, hosts a discussion featuring actors, producers, attorneys, or the people who inspired the film.

Even though I knew it would be a hard to watch, I opted for The Invisible War, a documentary about rape in the military. I traveled up to the cozy theater on a crisp Saturday evening and found a seat, recognizing several people I knew in the audience. After a few opening remarks about the festival, Mr. Rosenbaum introduced the film and the panel. Present that evening were attorney Susan L. Burke; Maria Cuomo Cole, one of the film’s executive producers; Rear Admiral Susan J. Blumenthal, a doctor and leading women’s health advocate; and former Airman First Class, survivor, and activist Jessica Nicole Hinves, who is featured in the film. Before the film began, the audience rose and applauded the panelists. And then the lights dimmed.

A synopsis: After a saccharine montage of military advertisements through the years encouraging women to join the armed forces, statistics on sexual assaults in the military flicker across the screen. In the next shot, we are face to face with survivors of those assaults telling their stories. The survivors are so riveting in sharing their personal histories, that for a while I forgot I was in a theater full of people, and felt that each of the speakers was talking directly to me.

The survivors’ accounts all share striking similarities. Reporting being raped did not lead to investigations, prosecutions, or even compassion. Instead, those reporting being raped suffered humiliation, professional retaliation, or further victimization, sometimes all three. All of the victims were deeply traumatized; they also were deeply betrayed.

As many of the women explain, there is a deep and strong bond between servicemen and women as they train, work, eat, celebrate, commemorate, and live side-by-side. They are, in the words of Ms. Hinves during the post-screening panel, “like a family.”

After being raped, members of the military are often further traumatized when their supervising officers, to whom they must report, accuse them of lying or of “asking for it.”  Some of the women in the documentary recount how they were raped by their supervising officer, leaving them with no one to report to, and vulnerable to further harassment or assault. As Ms. Hinves explained to us, supervising officers are the very people who are supposed to protect and help them when something goes wrong. Being rejected by a supervising officer is not only isolating, it causes the victims to question their own memory and judgment.

In May 2013, the Department of Defense released its annual report from the Pentagon detailing sexual assault in the military. The report estimated that reported assaults represent less than 15 percent of the assaults actually committed. In 2012, there were 3,374 complaints of sexual assault, which ranged from “abusive sexual conduct” to rape, involving service members as either victims or perpetrators. Of these complaints, fewer than ten percent went to trial.

As the documentary makes clear, rape in the military, and its accompanying enabling rape culture, is beyond pervasive, it’s an epidemic.

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