Front and Center: Sexual Violence in U.S. Military Law

Published date01 March 2009
Date01 March 2009
Subject MatterArticles
Front and Center: Sexual
Violence in U.S. Military Law*
Military-on-military sexual violence—the type of sexual violence that most
directly disrupts operations, harms personnel, and undermines recruiting—occurs
with astonishing frequency. The U.S. military has responded with a campaign to
prevent and punish military-on-military sex crimes. This campaign, however, has
made little progress, partly because of U.S. military law, a special realm of crim-
inal justice dominated by legal precedents involving sexual violence and racial-
ized images. By promulgating images and narratives of sexual exploitation,
violent sexuality, and female subordination, the military justice system has helped
to sustain a legal culture that reifies the connection between sexual violence and
authentic soldiering.
Keywords: sexual violence; military justice; legal culture; U.S. law; reform
I owe a great debt to the board of Politics & Society, especially ElisabethWood and Fred Block.
Their insight and attention set a standard for peer review that few scholars can match. I am also
grateful for the comments and encouragements of Jean Marie Lutes, Aaron Belkin, Hadar Aviram,
and Lois Weithorn; workshop participants at Yale University and the University of California
Hastings College of the Law during the fall of 2007; and the Gender, War, and Militarism confer-
ence convened by the Alice Paul Center and Women’s Studies Program at the University of
Pennsylvania in October 2007. All errors that remain are my own.
POLITICS & SOCIETY,Vol. 37 No. 1, March 2009 101-130
DOI: 10.1177/0032329208329753
© 2009 Sage Publications
*This article is part of a special sectionof Politics & Society on the topic “patterns of wartime sexual violence.”
The papers were presentedat the workshop Sexual Violenceduring War held atYale Universityin November 2007.
For more information,please refer to the introduction to this section.
In 1975, Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men,Women, and Rape char-
acterized theVietnam War as “a sociological crucible of rape” and castigated the
U.S. militaryfor failing to take sexual violence seriously.1Today, more thanthirty
years later, critics of military law and policy often cite Brownmiller’s classic as
proof of the transhistorical nature of military sexual violence.2Many see military
rape as an inevitable consequence of the excesses of war and consider official
efforts to restrain it half-hearted at best and hypocritical at worst.
But there is more to be gained from the study of sexual violence and the
American military than a flip dismissal of soldiers as rapists and war as hell.
The U.S. military has not overlooked the problem of rape, nor have civilian
leaders dismissed it. Commanders, members of Congress, legal reformers, and
educators have devoted significant resources to a troubling, if limited, subset
of military sexual violence: military-on-military sexual assault. Rapes and
other sexual violence committed by servicemembers against fellow troops
have generated outrage, media coverage, and political response, but no end to
the litany of soldier-on-soldier sexual violence. In another iteration of the
recurring story of military-on-military sexual exploitation and violence, on
January 11, 2008, the Marine Corps reported the death of a pregnant twenty-
year-old Marine, apparently at the hands of her military superior, a man who
had allegedly raped her.3U.S. RepresentativeJane Harman, chair of the House
Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, published an op-ed in the
Los Angeles Times on March 31, 2008, decrying the situation that service-
women face while deployed, pointing out that “women serving in the U.S.
military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy
fire in Iraq.”4
Military sexual violence has not persisted simply because commanders
have ignored the allegations of their troops or military institutions have failed
to initiate reforms. Rape has long been a much-noticed and harshly pun-
ished—in some circumstances—crime of American soldiers.5Since the fem-
inism of the 1970s and the Vietnam War transformed rape into an issue of
profound public importance, civilian officials and military commanders alike
have taken the problem especially seriously. Perhaps most important, the end
of conscription and the integration of women into the armed forces have
made military rape a threat to recruiting and to the morale and effectiveness
of the all-volunteer force. Today, women make up about one-sixth of military
Much, then, has already been done to attempt to reduce the prevalence of
military-on-military rape. The military criminal code governing sexual assault
has been overhauled, the policies that set the tone for the investigation and
prosecution of rape have been rewritten, and the cultural norms that encour-
aged sexual exploitation and the degradation of women have been undermined
with training and education. These efforts have attracted government and pop-
ular support; studies of “military sexual trauma” captured massive funding from

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