June 22, 2016
By Rianna Lee
Given the nature of the current events of the last few months, I have been addressing the sexual assault problem in our country very openly. My experiences – from outrage with the light sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner in the Stanford case to a protest I attended as part of the Thomas Merton Center’s Stop Sexual Assault in the Military (SSAM) Campaign – have lead me to question our culture of sexual assault and violence – and how we address each case with varying levels of importance, even though every act of sexual violence is worth addressing.
On June 2, Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman on Stanford’s campus, received a punishment way under the minimum sentence for his crimes. This obviously sparked outrage among women, college students, social justice activists, rape survivors, and many others. Many criticized Judge Aaron Persky for going easy on Turner because – before he committed an atrocious act of assault on an innocent, intoxicated woman – he was a promising athlete, student, and young man (and not-so-coincidentally white and wealthy).
Many blamed our culture of sexual assault and violence on college campuses. Vice President Joe Biden has been running his It’s On Us campaign for the last two years to educate college students on consent, being a good bystander, and the risks of drinking on campus. He even wrote a very poignant open letter to the victim, commending her for being brave, courageous, and speaking up not only for herself, but every other sexual assault survivor. While Joe means well, and large scale political attention to this issue is imperative, it seems that we, as a society, are so focused on the idea of sexual assault as something that happens primarily on college campuses. But what about sexual assaults that happen outside of college? In our military, perhaps?
A week later on June 9, the Thomas Merton Center’s SSAM Campaign held a protest to urge Sen. Pat Toomey to support the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). This piece of legislation would remove the authority to prosecute serious crimes, such as rape and sexual assault, from the chain of command and place it in the hands of professional military prosecutors. A 2014 survey by the Department of Defense found that over 47,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred among service members, with 1 in 7 of these assaults being perpetrated by someone in the victim’s chain of command.
Two statements from the protest recounted acts of sexual assault in the military – one from the perspective of the victim, and one from a bystander. Both stories chilled me to the core, but one in particular stuck out – Rev. Fr. Paul Dordal recounted his experience in Iraq in 2010, where he ministered to a young woman who had been repeatedly raped by her commander. According to his statement, the commander was not arrested or put in jail, but placed on administrative reassignment, pending an internal investigation. He was often seen joking with others in the HQ and handing out cigars to fellow officers, while his suffering victim was under constant suicide watch and psychological care.
I thought, this is why I am here. This is why I do what I do. This woman’s voice was silenced by someone who abused their power over her. The damage may have already been done to this woman, but maybe the MJIA will save the life of a future victim of rape in the military.
But then I looked around again and thought, where is everyone else? Sure, I was surrounded by 20+ people who cared for this anonymous woman and the tens of thousands of other rape survivors in the military. These people, like me, wanted to see justice for these victims and anyone who may fall victim in the future. But where is the nationwide campaign? Where is the tour to military bases around the country, telling survivors they are not alone and that it’s on us to stop military sexual assault? Where is the sexual assault education for military personnel, especially those higher in the chain of command?
Why is everyone so taken with sexual assault on college campuses and not the same atrocious acts occurring in our military? In our sports? In our homes? Why do we pick and choose what issues are important, when they are so similar?
I agree wholeheartedly that sexual assault on college campuses needs to be addressed, and soon. But as a society, we cannot ignore sexual assault that happens in the military, or anywhere else for that matter. Doing so makes even the most well-meaning person seem hypocritical and insensitive to the reality of all issues at hand.
The hardest part about social justice, in my opinion, is picking your battles. While these two are separate battles, they are both part of the same war. Sexual assault is an issue in and of itself. It doesn’t matter where it happens or to whom. To challenge this, we need to look deeply into our patriarchal society which is littered with rape culture. Beginning here is a good start for justice not only for the Stanford victim, but for the young soldier in Iraq, and every other sexual assault survivor who has been silenced by their attacker.
Rianna is a summer intern for the Thomas Merton Center and a senior at Duquesne University, studying international relations and sociology. She is interested in law and public policy surrounding gender and women’s rights. In her spare time, you can catch her eating at Chipotle with her friends or playing with her two guinea pigs, Thor and Loki.