Stars, stripes and sexual assault

Nearly a third of women in the U.S. military report being raped or sexually assaulted while serving. What can be done about this?

Published May 27, 2008 3:00PM (EDT)

Monday's New York Times included an Op-Ed, written by Helen Benedict, that gives a distressing view of the experiences of women in the U.S. military. (You might remember that Benedict wrote a piece on the same topic for Salon last March, for which she won a James Aronson award for social justice journalism.)

Benedict asserts that "nearly a third of female veterans say they were sexually assaulted or raped while in the military, and 71 percent to 90 percent say they were sexually harassed by the men with whom they served." She references studies that found that women who were sexually assaulted were nine times more likely to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than women who weren't (which seems unsurprising, since sexual assault is, well, traumatizing), and that sexual harassment itself "causes the same rates of post-traumatic stress in women as combat does in men." According to Benedict, rape can "lead to other medical crises, including diabetes, asthma, chronic pelvic pain, eating disorders, miscarriages and hypertension."

The New York Times doesn't include references or footnotes as to where Benedict is getting her statistics -- a weakness pointed out many times in the article's comment thread. It's a regrettable omission, since it allows people to dismiss the entire piece as frivolous or untrue -- the prevailing argument seems to be that without those references (or, as one reader asserted, without a man as a coauthor), Benedict is completely unbelievable.

I agree that if you're going to claim that a third of the women in our military are assaulted or raped, you should back up that number with, at very least, a reference to where it comes from. (As for the argument that a woman can't write convincingly about sexual harassment without a male coauthor, please excuse me while I go punch a wall.) But regardless of the sample sizes of the particular studies, Benedict is not fabricating the fact that women in our military are being sexually harassed and assaulted. And if you buy the argument, as I do, that we should do our utmost to ensure that the people who choose to risk their lives in military service should not be raped or assaulted by the people with whom they serve, then quibbling over the exact percentages (71 or 90 percent? What is "nearly a third"?) distracts us from the bigger issue. What's important is that harassment, assault and rape do occur in the military, they're traumatic, and they happen at much higher rates to women than to men. Ideally, we should prevent them from occurring in the first place -- and when that fails, we should help the victims.

Unfortunately, as Benedict convincingly points out, we're not doing enough of either. She refers to a Rand study -- the biggest non-military survey of the mental health of troops since 2001 -- that says that military women suffer from higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression than men do, but "neglected to look into why this might be, and asked no questions about abuse from fellow soldiers." The project's co-editor told Benedict that Rand "needs more money to explore these higher rates of trauma among women." Benedict further points out that as the more than 191,500 women serving in the Middle East come home, many of them are going to turn to the Veterans Affairs system -- which was, as she puts it, "built in the 1950s and designed to treat men." "Women who have been raped or sexually assaulted often cannot face therapy groups or medical facilities full of men," she writes. What's more, at the moment the Department of Veterans Affairs operates only six inpatient post-traumatic stress disorder programs specifically for women. And while all 153 department-run hospitals treat women, only 22 have "stand-alone women's clinics that offer a full range of medical and psychological services." Moreover, now only 7.2 percent of all veterans are women, but by 2020 women are expected to account for 20 percent of all veterans under the age of 45. While they certainly won't all become victims of sexual assault, "many will have medical or psychological needs," writes Benedict, "that conventional department hospitals cannot meet."

Benedict isn't, of course, arguing that women's post-combat needs should be prioritized over men's but, rather, that we need to do a better job of providing post-combat support to both genders. (One reader suggested SWAN, Service Women's Action Network, as a resource -- which in turn links to the Coming Home Project, aimed at veterans of both genders.) But I have a final question: Wouldn't we save ourselves a lot of effort -- and spare people a lot of emotional trauma -- if we did a better job of preventing such abuse from happening in the first place?

UPDATE: Helen Benedict responds in the letters section.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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