The XX Factor

Sexual Assault Still a Major Problem in War Zones

Anyone who has been following stories of sexual assault in the military over the past several years will not be surprised by today’s front-page New York Times story , pegged to a new Pentagon task force report, about how difficult life becomes for women who have been raped in war zones. Though the rate of sexual assault and harassment appears to be similar to the rate for civilians in the United States, the situation is more desperate, since women in the military can’t get away from their attackers. In addition, female soldiers who have been assaulted are afraid to report their crimes because they fear being punished by higher-ups for making trouble in such a high-stress environment. As Capt. Margaret H. White, who was raped in Iraq, explains, “You’re in the middle of a war zone…So [sexual assault is] kind of like that one little thing is nothing compared with ‘There is an I.E.D. that went off in this convoy today and three people were injured.’”

The Army is trying to improve things for women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed-bases now have rape kits, and the Pentagon has rewritten the rules about rape reporting, treatment and prosecution on Army bases. But according to the Times , “The military’s efforts, however well intentioned, are often undermined by commanders who are skeptical or even conflicted, suspicious of accusations and fearful that reports of abuse reflect badly on their commands.”

Last year, the Wall Street Journal had an article that said many of the same things as today’s Times report-that the military is talking a big game, but the aftermath is as bad as ever for women in the armed forces who are sexually assaulted. If the comments to the Times article are any indication, there needs to be a major military attitude shift before things really change for women who have been raped. The commenters mostly blame Capt. White for her harassment and abuse, because she had a relationship with her abuser prior to the rape, even though he was married.

Other commenters are former soldiers who say that rape must not be a problem because they didn’t personally know anyone who was raped. Says commenter “David,” from Ft. Bragg, who says he is a Sargeant in the Army, “The few women I have seen in my unit have all been promoted faster for fraternizing and frolicking with male superiors. And I have a hard time believing that a captain cannot or would not be able to come forward and not be taken seriously.” Until soldiers like David realize it rape is a problem for female soldiers, the situation will likely continue to be terrible for women like Capt. White.

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images