There's been a lot of talk about Fox News commentator Liz Trotta's comments that women in the military should "expect" to be raped as part of the job requirement. She went on to say that when it comes to combat "...basic instincts rule. The niceties of male, female interaction fade in this arena and any scientist will tell you that testosterone rules."
Certainly, as a woman, I am appalled by Trotta's comments. And as the founder and president of Protect Our Defenders, an organization dedicated to reforming the military's broken system for investigating and adjudicating rape and sexual violence, I am deeply disturbed.
But in another sense, I am also appreciative. The truth is, what Liz Trotta said needs to be heard, because it reflects the thinking of far too many in the military -- thinking that has helped create an epidemic of sexual violence.
Trotta may have been the one to say it out loud, on national television, but there are far too many in positions of power who silently agree.
While sexual violence in the military is finally being recognized at the very highest ranks -- Secretary of Defense Panetta himself calls the problem "totally unacceptable" -- recent data shows the problem is actually getting worse.
The Department of Defense estimates that in 2009, 19,000 service members were raped or sexually assaulted -- but of these 19,000 assaults, just 13.5 percent were reported for fear of retaliation or blame. Most recently, the Pentagon's 2011 annual report showed a 58.5 percent increase in reported sexual assaults at service academies, with West Point being found out of compliance with DOD sexual assault prevention policy.
Survivors of rape and sexual assault are said by some to get what they deserve -- because they had a drink with someone they thought was a friend or went out alone. In fact, the military's own Sexual Assault Prevention Program is so antiquated it implies if you don't find a buddy to walk home with you and you are attacked, it's your own fault.
This mentality of blaming the victim is all too common, and it's part of a culture that is pervasive throughout the military. For example, today we learned that in the midst of a stampede of advertisers running away from Rush Limbaugh's radio show due to his vile attack on Georgetown student Sandra Fluke, the Pentagon will continue to air Limbaugh's program.
One would hope that the military would use this opportunity -- as many of Limbaugh's advertisers did -- to address the cultural challenges it faces within it's own community. But instead it shamefully reinforced the outdated mindset that has led to such shocking sexual violence statistics.
At Protect Our Defenders, one of our core missions is getting out the heartbreaking stories of survivors of sexual violence in the military. These are horrific and deeply disturbing, and once again underscore the need for a culture change on this issue.
After raping her, Sailor Terri Odom's superior told her that she wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last. When she reported her rape and torture, she was threatened with arrest and discharge. Aviation Commander Darchelle was told by NCIS that they had never had such strong evidence to support prosecution -- but her rapist was still found not guilty. Sailor Heath Phillips was gang raped, repeatedly, only to be told he was a liar when he tried to report the assaults. His assailants were eventually discharged when they were caught raping another sailor. Discharged -- not prosecuted.
These stories are echoed in a new lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington that accuses the military of a "high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks" and fostering a hostile environment that discourages victims from coming forward and retaliates against them when they do. Marine Lieutenant Ariana Klay, a Naval Academy graduate and Iraq war veteran, was gang raped by a superior officer and his friend and then told she had invited the attack because she wore make-up and running shorts. Incredibly, Klay's superior officer/rapist was later convicted of adultery.
These are the stories of just some of the estimated 500,000 active duty and veteran survivors of rape and sexual assault. Not only have they been violently assaulted and raped, they've been let down by an institution they swore to defend. An institution that defines itself in terms of honor and integrity, but which acts with very little of either when it comes to handling rape or sexual assault in its ranks.
Survivors of sexual violence in the military are victimized first by their assailant and then again by a broken system. Retribution, denial of appropriate medical care, and a total failure of justice are the norm -- not the exception. This broken system, which allows rape and sexual assault to go virtually unchecked is undermining readiness, unit cohesion, and morale.
Lawsuits like the one filed Tuesday and our work at Protect Our Defenders are slowly but steadily chipping away at this culture of silence and tolerance. But it's going to take fundamental reform -- like that offered by Representative Jackie Speier's STOP Act, which would remove authority from the conventional chain of command to change the system for investigating and adjudicating incidents of sexual violence, and finally end this epidemic.
The way things are now, the U.S. military fails to protect its most important resource -- our sons and daughters who serve. Sexual predators in the military are unafraid, because they know an unwritten code shields them. In her ignorance, Liz Trotta shone a bright light on this ugly, damaging truth. Like Trotta, the military, for too long, has been an apologist for predators and rapists, and perpetuated a culture without responsibility or accountability.
It's up to us to put and end to this.