Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban preventing female soldiers from officially serving in combat -- a decision that raised the urgency on efforts to address the festering crisis of sexual assault within the U.S. military. That crisis -- which claimed more than 50 victims of sexual assault a day in the latest year of Defense Department data -- is the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Invisible War. In this series, The Huffington Post invites victims and advocates to speak out about sexual assault in the military.
Rape has always been disgusting and destructive for its victims, since long before any language had a word for it. The history of human beings on this earth has featured the concept of women as the chattel of men, as their property, for millennia. The economy of farming further developed the idea of females as servants, to serve the farmer's needs in sowing seeds, reaping crops, milling flour, making his meals and serving him sexually. And often the same control has been exerted over children. In some areas of the world, girls as young as 11 or 12 are sold into marriage. This happened just recently in Saudi Arabia, where a 12-year-old girl was sold into marriage to an 80-year-old husband. And the same thing happened in the West until quite recent times.
Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick's film The Invisible War examines the culture of rape in our nation's military: brave women and men describe their cruel humiliation in the hope that the culture, regulations, and legal system which perpetuate rampant military rape will now end. In 2010, the Department of Defense estimates there were 19,000 sexual assaults. But in 2011, the Department completed investigations of only 2,353 assaults, less than 15 percent of the total, and only 489 were referred to court-martial. We do not know how many went unreported, nor do we know how many convictions for sexual assault the Defense Department obtained, because the Pentagon doesn't want to make that number public. But we do know that only 244 perpetrators were convicted of any charge at all. Go figure.
The Invisible War features interviews with veterans from multiple branches of the Armed Services, who recount the events surrounding their assaults. Their stories show common themes: the lack of recourse to an impartial justice system, reprisals against survivors instead of perpetrators, the absence of adequate emotional and physical care for survivors, the unhindered advancement of perpetrators' careers, and the forced expulsion of survivors from service. These are far from isolated events. They are the sad litany of tens of thousands of degrading, life-affecting rapes, often by serial perpetrators protected by the mis-application of aspects of military culture and codes of silence.
The Invisible War is a brave attempt to change the culture of rape in our armed services. But make no mistake, in talking about the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, the film is talking about America at large, about Western civilization, and about humanity itself. Communal male encouragement, support for male crimes against women, and the wall of silence that descends to protect its perpetrators, are exacerbated in uniforms, be they military, Boy Scouts or clerical dress. But the benighted encouragement of sexual victimization is much more widespread: it lives in the words of some Congressional candidates in the last election, in rap music, in video games, and shamefully in many films.
Major new understandings over the last 30 years have come from the research of two groups of experts: psychologists have shown that rape very often leads to a lifetime of depression and stress for its victims. Neurobiologists have shown that the brain can hardwire itself as a reaction to experience, so that the victims of rape and molestation may develop PTSD every bit as real and destructive as soldiers whose brains are changed forever after experiencing other kinds of violence. Rape is violence too, and it destroys lives the same way.
In my work with Foster Youth, I see every week the long-term havoc that rape and molestation place of the heads of children. It is always bad, and closely feeds obesity, depression, self-harm and suicidal tendencies for life. This bad stuff is all around us. What to do? Well, better to light a single candle than curse the gathering darkness. We have to be braver. We have to trumpet efforts like The Invisible War and make sure they are widely seen. We have to hold a mirror of criticism up to irresponsible media that normalizes the destruction of lives through rape. All of us, including and especially men, need to speak up. The First Amendment is no free pass to drop one's civilization into a gutter. We need to complain loudly wherever and whenever we see and hear boorish, sexist, evil-speak around these issues. They are no joking matter.
We have to raise our young women to be safe and to preserve their self-esteem. And most of all, we have to show our young men that bravery, machismo and forcefulness are never earned by victimizing another person.
Peter Samuelson is Managing Director of the Media Institute for Social Change at USC. The producer of 25 films, he founded www.starlight.org and with Steven Spielberg www.starbrightworld.org . He is President of www.firststar.org , which advocates for our nation's 500,000 Foster Youth.