Remember that awkward silence that fell across the nation back in '94 when Bill Clinton's surgeon general used the M-word?
Jocelyn Elders, speaking at an AIDS conference at the U.N. about reducing the risk of sexually transmitted disease, said that masturbation "is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught."
Clinton, rather than defend frank, honest talk about sexuality at the national level and condemn its opposite, caved under the weight of the gasps and titters and fired Elders, explaining that the outspoken surgeon general's comments reflected "differences with Administration policy and my own convictions." Differences on masturbation? A couple years later, the Monica scandal erupted and things were a little clearer -- oh yeah, this is how we talk about sex in America.
Are we a serious nation or what?
What passes for sexual openness is mostly commercial exploitation. In reality, sex is still in the closet as a subject of serious national discussion, despite all the complications associated with it. Sex scandals are a media staple, of course, but in recent weeks we've been rocked by a new wave of sex abuse scandals -- rape scandals -- the dark, disturbing power of which, as always, lies in the likelihood that there are a lot more revelations and accusations still to come, more authority figures' reputations to be shattered, more honor-steeped traditions to be exposed as hollow.
When sex is hidden in the shadows -- when it's something you can't talk about (but you can brag about) -- it easily becomes one more tool of domination, wrapped in an unspeakable shame that preserves its secrecy. The crime of rape is the crime of predation, the crime of "I own you." And it is an institutional failure first -- on college campuses, in the U.S. military -- as evidenced by breaking news stories reporting not merely allegations of sexual molestation over a long period of time, but of their quiet cover-up by those in charge, granting de facto impunity to the victimizers. The pattern is always the same.
By fascinating coincidence, two recent developments highlighting the endemic problem of sexual abuse in the U.S. military are in the news just as the child-molestation scandal in college sports programs and other macho domains has begun to widen.
At both Penn State and The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, the sex abuse allegations emanate from their summer camp programs for boys, reopening the ghastly concerns first forced upon the public a decade ago by the sex-abuse revelations that shook the Catholic Church. If such institutional paragons of traditional values can't be trusted, are children safe anywhere?
Maybe it's time to look at the values themselves -- beginning with those of our military culture, which is the model, and indeed the metaphor, for every other form of domination culture: The prime value is winning, achieving dominance over some sort of enemy or "other." Around this core of dominance, we construct a fortress of honor, righteousness, cleanliness of mind and spirit. We revere the fortress, but in its dark interior, our natural impulses are ungoverned and often manifest themselves in perverse mockery of the values we salute.
That this paradox describes military culture was made clear, once again, last week, when Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would, among other things, establish a separate office -- that is, outside the Department of Defense -- to handle the investigation of all sexual-assault claims in the armed services.
"The vast majority of men and women who have been sexually abused in the military have come to realize there is no justice in the military's chain of command," Speier said. She cited the Defense Department's own statistics: some 19,000 rapes a year in the military, only a fraction of which get reported because military culture still -- after years of exposure and adverse publicity -- seeks first to silence, humiliate and crush the victim. The post-rape ordeal is often worse than the initial crime, many victims have said. The accusers are often the ones who are punished and drummed out of the service.
The very next day, the federal court in Alexandria, Va., held its first hearing in a lawsuit -- Cioca v. Rumsfeld -- filed last February on behalf of 28 plaintiffs (25 women and three men, from every branch of service), against former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld, charging them with tolerating and perpetuating a military culture that countenances rape and punishes those who report it.
Attorney Susan Burke told the court, as reported in the Daily Beast, "how some of her plaintiffs had been 'forced to live alongside their rapists, forced to salute their rapists every day.'"
Nothing about any of this is new, not even the uproar. For instance, eight years ago, a scandal at the Air Force Academy -- with some 60 female cadets and former cadets coming forward, charging they'd been raped, then subsequently silenced -- elicited solemn, and by now long forgotten, promises of system-wide change from the brass.
My belief: As long as such values as honesty, empathy and love are subservient to conquest and domination, both inside and outside the military, nothing will change.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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