The Military’s Culture of Victim-Blaming

The military has a victim-blaming problem, and the documentary The Invisible War reveals how pervasive the mentality is within the ranks.

One survivor who shares her story in the film reported sexual assault and was told, “That’s what you get for walking down a hallway full of drunk aviators.” Comments like this one place responsibility solely on the victim and treat sexual assault as something to be expected. Unfortunately, these comments are not unusual.

A military training video in the documentary shows a female soldier get assaulted while walking alone after denying a colleague’s offer to walk with her. The video is meant to encourage female soldiers to use a “buddy system” to protect themselves from assault. In other words, this video puts the blame on the survivor for not being vigilant enough, rather than on the attacker. It accepts sexual assault as a fact of military life. Instead of teaching, “Don’t rape,” the military teaches, “don’t get raped.”

The training video also ignores that sexual assault happens to both men and women in the military. In 2012 an estimated 26,000 military personnel experienced sexual assault, and less than half of that total was women (14,000 men, 12,000 women). The perpetrators are typically heterosexual men preying on both male and female military personnel, and these perpetrators are the ones who need to be held accountable.

Victim-blaming and retaliation contribute to the under-reporting that is so typical of sexual assault in the military. Retaliation can mean being investigated instead of the perpetrator, being moved to a different unit, losing their jobs or being blamed for the assault. According to a Pentagon survey, 62% of survivors say they experienced some type of retaliation after reporting an assault, and would not report again.

There is not one clear fix for this problem. Military culture may be slow to respond to shifts in public opinion, but the fact is that victim-blaming is still pervasive in our society. Whether we remove assault investigations from the chain of command or not, real progress won’t be made until the standard response to an allegation of sexual assault is to investigate the crime, not to wonder if the victim is telling the truth. We hope that the increasing public awareness around the issue will lead to changes in the military’s culture. The military must make real changes to protect and support survivors, stop victim-blaming and end sexual assault.

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