Do Military Sexual Assaults Against Men Trump Those Against Women?

At a Capitol Hill news conference called in May by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in support of her legislation to address sexual assault in the military, Brian Lewis, a former petty officer in the U.S. Navy, told of how, at the age of 20, he was raped on board a ship by a superior officer, and then drummed out of the service and denied his Veterans Administration benefits when he took his complaint to his commanding officer.

While the Navy never denied the assault took place, according to the Guardian, Lewis’ attacker went unpunished. At the press conference, Lewis said that instead, he suffered retaliation for having made the complaint in the form of a false diagnosis of a personality disorder by a Navy psychiatrist—a diagnosis that led to his separation from the service without benefits.

Lewis’ story is not unlike those told by many military women who suffer sexual assault by members of higher rank, who endure sexual assault during their time in the service at more than five times the rate of men. (Indeed, at the same press conference, Jennifer Norris, a former sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, told of suffering post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] after enduring several sexual assaults, and then losing her security clearance because of her PTSD diagnosis.)

Despite the higher rate of sexual assault in the military against women, Pentagon statistics estimate a greater number of assaults against men—some 53 percent of all sexual assaults in the military—based on the fact that the services are overwhelmingly male. With the upcoming release of Justice Denied, a documentary that focuses on the stories of men who suffered sexual assault while serving in the armed forces, an emphasis on their stories is moving to the fore. And that’s a good thing for all survivors, one would assume, for it exposes a pervasive culture of sexual predation in the military.

But if a recent New York Times front page story is any indication, attempts are already being made to distinguish the rape experiences of male survivors as inherently worse than women’s, and to continue framing assaults on women in terms of the rapist’s sexual desire, not the same quest for domination that motivates those who assault men.

Given society’s default position in disbelieving the woman who dares to accuse her rapist, advocates for sexual assault victims express the hope that with more men coming forward to tell their stories, the military brass will take the problem—an estimated 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in a single year, according to a recent Pentagon report—more seriously. Another reason that the generals and admirals have failed to prioritize the problem is that it’s seen as a “women’s problem,” and women comprise a mere 15 percent of the force, Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), told the Times.

With more men coming forward, she said, “I think it places the onus on the institution when people realize it’s also men who are victims.”

While that may be a sad fact of the way in which assaults on women are considered to be somehow less important, more troubling is this paragraph, from the same New York Times article, by James Dao:

Many sexual assaults on men in the military seem to be a form of violent hazing or bullying, said Roger Canaff, a former New York State prosecutor who helped train prosecutors on the subject of military sexual assault for the Pentagon. “The acts seemed less sexually motivated than humiliation or torture-motivated,” he said.

Note that this guy trains military prosecutors.

What are we to take from that? That assaults against women are the acts of lonely guys who are just looking for a little love? That the motivation for some of the horrendous attacks on women in the military by men, often of higher rank, has nothing to do with a desire to humiliate or torment the women?

Take the case of Navy veteran Trina McDonald, told in the documentary film The Invisible War, who says that in 1989 she was drugged, raped repeatedly, and even dumped in the Bering Sea after an assault. Sounds like something other than sexual motivation there.

Or that of Army veteran Ayana Harrell, who was drugged and gang-raped in 2001, and then, when she told her commanding officer that she was pregnant because of the attack, was told, she says, that it was her own problem.

More recently, there was the 2012 social-media humiliation of a female Navy midshipman who says she was raped by several Naval Academy football players after she passed out at a party.

And the assault last month of a civilian woman in a Virginia mall parking lot by the Air Force lieutenant who, at the time, led that service’s sexual assault prevention unit.

And multiple reports of assaults by military recruiters against young women in the recruitment process, including one that ended in a murder-suicide.

I don’t mean to suggest that sexual assaults sustained by military men are less important or less traumatizing than those endured by women. But I see in the offing an attempt to paint them as more so, and that’s deeply disturbing.

We’re told that men are left with the trauma of questioning their manhood, of not being believed by family members, of the humiliation of the assumption by many that they must have cooperated in some way with the assault. While it may be less likely for a woman to question her sexual identity as the result of an assault, she is usually left to question her own feminine virtue as construed by society, which is a torment unto itself. Each are different, and there’s no way that one sex can assess the other’s experience of sexual assault as particular to gender.

Likewise, no two sexual assaults are completely alike. Some are more brutal than others. But all are profoundly damaging to those who endure them.

I welcome airing the stories of the courageous men who are now coming forward to tell of how they were preyed upon by their brethren in the armed forces. My heart hurts for them, just as it hurts for all of the women who have endured such injustices. And if their coming forward puts more urgency into finally ending this scourge, that’s a good thing, and these men will have done a great service for servicemen and servicewomen alike.

But the framing of their stories must not be construed in such a way as to draw distinctions based on old tropes about the nature of sexual assaults against women, cementing the old saw about “boys being boys” when they prey on women, and something worse when they prey on men.

The military has a predator problem within its ranks—and a traitorous one at that. That the Senate Armed Services Committee, by rejecting Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, has chosen to leave the adjudication of these crimes within the chain of command that has allowed them to proliferate is a crime in itself. That the president has remained silent on the chain of command problem is disheartening.

If what it takes lawmakers to do their constitutional duty to protect America’s fighting men and women is the knowledge that roughly one in 100 men in the armed forces suffer sexual assault at the hands of their brother fighters—when, clearly, knowledge of the one in 17 military women who suffer the same didn’t do the trick—then so be it.

But rape is rape. Sexual assault is sexual assault. These are brutal crimes of betrayal designed to humiliate, dominate, and harm the person who is preyed upon, regardless of his or her sex.

Until we get that straight, the road to women’s equality remains strewn with the obstacles sown by history’s purveyors of sex libel.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

Follow Adele M. Stan on twitter: @addiestan

  • Helen Santiago

    All sexual assaults on men or women are equally degrading and harmful to our military services although sexual assaults can result in a women’s forced, unwanted and humiliating pregnancy. If these assaults by commanding officers are not dealt with as the sexual crimes that they really are, assaults will continue be treated as frivolous and unimportant, like rites of passage or mere hazing. All sexual assaults should be judged and punished at a higher command level, not by these victims’ commanding officer who may well be implicated in the crime.

  • embell

    Sexual assaults in the military should be tried in civilian, not military courts. That would temper or even eliminate the concern of military personnel about being discriminated against in promotion because of reporting these crimes. Civilian courts and jurors do not have the background fear of subsequent reprisals.

    • BSmyth

      by the very nature of the UCMJ that is impossiable

      • fiona64

        Exactly. It’s a matter of jurisdiction.

  • nobloodforhubris

    Because rape suddenly gains legitimacy when male rape survivors are involved? Oy.

  • rkt9

    The military is an assault on human life, and consciouness. Better to abolish it all together. The very idea of military is an assault on humanity. Sexual assault inside our military is another form of “friendly fire.”

    • BSmyth

      and you’ll be welcome to protect the country from any terrorism from outside sources, all by yourself.

      • Arekushieru

        Hmm, methinks, rather, that rates of terrorism would DROP. Because even IF you don’t believe that terrorism is a result of radicalization by terrorist acts on the parts of WESTERN powers, you DO realize that there is a direct correlation between acts of the West and the actions of terrorists, right? You do realize how non-Western countries gain the trust of and mobilize the people they need to attack the ‘Great Satan’, right? By using extreme examples of the tactics their enemies use against them, especially when it intrudes on their own autonomy, y’know, like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc? After all, the United States went into all three countries to look for WMDs but, for some reason, they never found any. It only created more areas of conflict and raised tensions between the East and the West. So much for ‘protecting’ the country from any terrorism from outside sources. It actually looks like they were the SOURCE of the conflict. So, you are welcome to ‘protect’ the country from terrorism, rkt9 and I will actually protect our respective countries. Whoops.

  • Harriet Logan

    The question as stated in the title is utterly absurd….

    ‘Do Military Sexual Assaults Against Men Trump Those Against Women?’

    Actually it wasn’t even a media story when only men were getting raped inside the military. And it’s hardly a story today about how men get raped in the prison system either. Men getting raped hardly draws anybody’s attention to rape being seen as much of a problem. The attitude about men being raped is that it is somehow merited if a man is too weak to defend himself against this crime. So how does the word ‘trump’ get pulled into the discussion on alternet?

    I would hardly call this a situation where men are ‘trumping’ women in regards to sexual assaults being seen as significant. It is actually the other way around.

    • ondelette

      Which is reflected in two facts: 1) Of those who are actually sexually assaulted or raped, only 18% as many men report the crime as women, and 2) in the study on which Ms. Stan is writing, of all those acts which, had the victims been women, the crime would have been classed as rape, only 1 was so charged. All the others were some form of assault, or crimes like “non-consensual sodomy” or other, which do not carry the same severity of penalty.

      Ms. Stan needs an education before she writes again. I suggest the writings of Dr. Sandesh Sivakumaran, who writes in the European Journal of International Law, and the International Review of the Red Cross. After several years of hard work, he and others have convinced the UNHCR to test for rape of men at refugee camps, starting in November of 2012. It isn’t even a crime in many countries.

      • Arekushieru

        Please provide sources. Oh, yeah, don’t have any to back you up. Always forget what kind of people rape apologists are.

        And way to miss the point, Misses Ondelette and Logan. She wasn’t talking about a specific media story. She was talking about PREVALENT ATTITUDES within society that may seek to raise the issue as one of men versus women. Or, have you NOT heard of MRAs? What sheltered lives you two must lead. I wish *I* could be that sheltered.

        Although, Miss Logan’s last comment leads me to wonder why she DID miss the point, because she is doing the EXACT SAME THING that Adele stated she hoped would NOT happen, the very thing I described ABOVE. The IGNORANCE. It BURNS.

        Of course it isn’t considered a crime, because rape is a way to feminize the victim, iow, to PUNISH them. Because being female, a woman, feminine is considered something BAD. That’s the whole POINT of her article. The fact that it is NOT TREATED AS A CRIME is the whole FUCKING POINT of the article. Oi. Reading comprehension, rape apologists, PLEASE.

  • Kaitlyn Newton

    so tired of men making everything about them. women will continue to suffer and die because of men but nobody gives a shit until a few of them start getting it too.