Scapegoating gays is not the way to fight sexual assault in the military

In a not terribly helpful article in the NYT, advocates for addressing sexual assault against women in the military have brought out what they consider their secret weapon for getting the attention of the military’s male leadership: the fact that more men than women in the military, they say, suffer sexual assault (at the hands of other men).

The problem?  When you hear about men sexually assaulting men, a lot of people think “gay.”  And who’s already thinking “gay”?  The religious right (see  examples below).  This report goes a long way towards explaining why lead anti-gay religious right groups have recently started blaming the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for the military’s sexual assault problem.

Here’s Tony Perkins, the head of the officially-designated hate group, Family Research Council:

“So we’ve seen this rise of homosexual assault since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, so it is this sexualization of the military where sex becomes the focal point and it shouldn’t be. When there was Don’t Ask Don’t Tell nobody knew and that’s the way they preferred it and now it becomes front and center.”

And this from right-wing propaganda organ WorldNetDaily:


And the same homophobic lies from another officially-designated hate group, the American Family Association:


And more from an email by the Family Research Council:

President Obama is finally admitting that sexual assault is a serious problem in the military–but what he hasn’t conceded is that his policy on homosexuality helped create it. According to a new Pentagon survey, most of the victims were not female (12,000 incidents), but male (14,000)–highlighting a growing trend of same-sex assault in our ranks…

How could this happen? Well, for starters, the Obama administration ordered military leaders to embrace homosexuality–completely dismissing the concerns that it could be a problem to have people attracted to the same sex, living in close quarters. What’s more, explains Marine Capt. Lindsay Rodman, the statistics aren’t reliable and may be hiding thousands more cases of service-based abuse. “The truth is,” she writes in the Wall Street Journal, “that the 26,000 figure [of victims] is such bad math–derived from an unscientific sample set and extrapolated military-wide–that no conclusions can be drawn from it.” Except one, perhaps, which is that groups like FRC were right to be concerned about the overturning of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

When you read between the lines, it seems these assaults could just as easily be examples of anti-gay bias in the military – i.e., straight service members using faux-gay sexual assaults to haze other service members (jumping into bed with them, pretending to have sex with them from behind, etc.)  But the NYT article doesn’t bother mentioning that fact until you click to the second page, more than half-way through the entire story.  And the explanation is more than a bit qualified:

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.

Seem to be.

The only direct refutation of the notion that the perpetrators are gay comes from a victim, who offers no proof whatsoever:

“A lot of people say this problem exists because we are allowing women into the military or because of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” he said, referring to the ban on openly gay service members. “But that is absurd. The people who perpetrated these crimes on me identify as heterosexual males.”

So one assault out of 10,000 wasn’t gay.  That’s helpful.

I’ve written repeatedly about the problem of sexual assault against women in the military.  It’s an issue that must be addressed.  But if the wrong class of people is being blamed for these assaults, then you risk the assaults never being addressed, and the true perpetrators never being brought to justice.

It’s not rocket science to have predicted that this data would be misinterpreted.  A year and a half after the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy ends, people are putting out data suggesting that man-on-man sexual assault is the real problem in the military.  Sounds gay to me.  And it’s certainly going to sound gay to people who have a vested interest in hating gays.

Sadly, there is nothing even attempting to dispel this myth – this slander, really – on the home page of the lead group dealing with the sexual assault issue, Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), other than a link to the NYT story which basically perpetuates the slander.  Nor is there any mention of the perpetrators not being gay in SWAN’s fact sheet on the issue:


More from SWAN’s executive director, Anuradha K. Bhagwati, via the NYT:

“I think telling the story about male victims is the key to changing the culture of the military,” said Anuradha K. Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group that has sharply criticized the Pentagon’s handling of sexual assault. “I think it places the onus on the institution when people realize it’s also men who are victims.”

No, it places the onus on gay men who are probably more likely to be the victims of this hazing. Talk about blaming the victim.

Ironically, the only one who got this story right was the horrifically anti-gay, GOP propaganda organ, Washington Times.  In their stories on this issue, they at least bothered to include a quote from a known expert saying the “gay” angle was bunk:

Aaron Belkin, who heads The Palm Center, which studies gays and lesbians in the military, said “very few” male-on-male perpetrators are gay, saying such incidents are “somewhat similar to prison rape.”

“It is important to try as hard as possible to eliminate sexual assaults from the military, but I don’t think that procedural reforms will do much to lower the incidence rate unless military culture changes dramatically,” said Mr. Belkin, whose 2012 book “Bring Me Men,” included a case study on male-on-male rape in the military.

When the Washington Times is doing a better job than the NYT and victims’s advocates in explaining the problem, there’s a problem.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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