Price of calling women crazy: Military women who speak out about sexual assault are being branded with "personality disorder" and let go

Noxious stereotypes about women being nuts and liars are being used to silence military women who report rape

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 20, 2016 6:13PM (EDT)

Emily Vorland, discharged after reporting sexual harassment.   (Human Rights Watch)
Emily Vorland, discharged after reporting sexual harassment. (Human Rights Watch)

As all too many rape victims discover when they speak out, many react by just wishing the victim would shut up and go away.

Most rapists attack someone they know, which means that holding them accountable means tearing apart whatever community — school, work, friend group — that the accused and accuser belong in. Often, it feels just easier to pressure the accuser to shut up and go away so everything can return to normal, even though that often requires ignoring that there's a sexual predator in your midst.

In a report released on Thursday, Human Rights Watch turned up alarming evidence that, in the military, forces that want to shut accusers up and make them go away have found a disturbingly potent weapon: Misogynist stereotypes. By leaning on prejudiced beliefs that women, especially outspoken women, are either dishonest or crazy, the military was able to get rid of women who came forward with rape accusations.

The 124-page report, “Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors,” found that many rape victims suffering from trauma were unfairly discharged for a “personality disorder” or other mental health condition that makes them ineligible for benefits. Others were given “Other Than Honorable” discharges for misconduct related to the assault that shut them out of the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system and a broad range of educational and financial assistance. The consequences of having “bad paper” – any discharge other than “honorable” – or being labeled as having a “personality disorder” are far-reaching for veterans and their families, impacting employment, child custody, health care, disability payments, burial rights – virtually all aspects of life.

Dismissing women as crazy or liars or both is a long-standing tactic of rape denialists, who feed of false social beliefs about women being less mentally stable or straightforward than men. That's how, for instance, Bill Cosby was able to coast so long, despite having settled a lawsuit out of court in which the plaintiff had 13 women ready and willing to speak out.

The belief that women are inherently off somehow is so ingrained that it was easy for the public to believe that more than a football team's worth of women was just doing this out of a female strain of crazy vindictiveness. It wasn't until the numbers swelled to the dozens that most of the public had to start questioning whether it might just be possible that the explanation for the accusations was that they were true instead of that women are crazy monsters who lie for sport.

The notion that women are crazy liars is so ingrained in our society that it's often hard to see it. But it's the go-to way to dismiss any woman who speaks out or resists a male-dominated social order. The percentage of women who have been called "crazy" during a domestic spat with a man probably hovers around 99.9%. (Kudos to the men, most of whom admit to having done this in the past, who are publicly pushing back against how easy it is for men to win an argument by simply "diagnosing" their partners as crazy.) Feminists have always faced down accusations that their activism is rooted in the crazy-lyingness of women, since the days of the suffrage movement to the constant drumbeat of "crazy" accusations that feminists get these days on Twitter.  One of the most famous books of American 19th century literature deals with the way that women's ambitions and outspokenness is so frequently rewarded with "diagnoses" of mental illness.

As evidence for the power of the "women are crazy liars" stereotype, consider the current election landscape. Hillary Clinton is, in objective terms, the most honest candidate who ran a presidential campaign this year. But she is usually rated the least trustworthy. The widespread gap between reality and perception is due largely, probably entirely, to ugly stereotypes about outspoken women as mentally unstable hysterics who lie for sport.

Under the circumstances, it's no surprise that calling women crazy or liars is to standard way societies dismiss rape charges that they don't want to deal with. That's terrible in and of itself, but for military women, it's even worse, because these trumped-up charges end up in their military discharge papers, imperiling their opportunities to get work in the future. As the report notes, the stigma of being labeled with "personality disorder" or "mental illness", even if you don't have one, can be used against women in child custody cases and make it harder for them to get health care.

Worse, there's almost no recourse.

"US law prohibits service members from suing the military for any harm suffered related to their service," the report reads. "The Boards for Correction of Military Records and Discharge Review Boards, the administrative bodies responsible for correcting injustices to service members’ records, are overwhelmed with thousands of cases."

The cases that HRW collected are horrific. One woman reports that she was groped, bullied, and raped by her male colleagues in the Navy. She finally complained when they — no joke — waited until she was asleep and set her on fire.

"[T]he perpetrators were only given an oral reprimand and, when she complained to a supervisor, she was told she was overreacting," the report reads. After she complained again about an officer who kept groping her, she was "diagnosed" with a "personality disorder" and discharged. She has since struggled to find work, since no one wants to hire a supposedly crazy lady.

Obviously, in some cases HRW looked at, there was a decline in mental health. (That happens to rape victims a lot of the time. Shocking, I know.) But, as HRW found, victims who really do need a mental health discharge are often not informed that there is a process to leave for mental health reasons where you are not stuck with an other-than-honorable discharge that can affect future job prospects. The eagerness to get rid of them leads to people who didn't do anything wrong and really need help being stuck with a stigmatized discharge that often makes it even harder to get that help.

HRW recommends many policy fixes to make it easier for rape victims to survive without having to carry a dishonorable or other-than-honorable discharge around for the rest of their lives, including not allowing the military to discharge a victim with a "personality disorder" without proper diagnosis and making it easier for victims to get a hearing to change their discharge status.

But this problem is also a microcosm of a larger social ill, which is our tendency to lean on stereotypes of women being "crazy" or "liars" whenever they speak out about injustice. We've come far, as a society, on gender issues, but we still live in a world where a woman can be groped, raped, and even set on fire, but she ends up being told she's the crazy one while no one asks about the mental status of men who would do such things. That needs to change, and we can all help by resisting the urge to dismiss any woman who tips our applecart with the word "crazy."

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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