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Sexual Assault Is Still the American Military’s Best-Kept Secret

And it will continue to be until its prosecution is taken out of the chain of command.

(Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)

The accuser’s testimony was gut-wrenching, and she sobbed as she recounted how her three-year relationship with a superior officer, a man she thought she might have loved, fell apart. Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, a 51-year-old rising star of the United States’ military command, allegedly forced the accuser, herself an ambitious Army intelligence captain, to give him oral sex in her office in Afghanistan. They had been lovers for a few years. He was married and she was his Arabic-speaking advisor, but he would often be more forceful in his advances than she was comfortable with. The second time he forced oral sex on her, according to the accuser’s testimony, she tried to resist by pushing away, telling him, "If you… touch me again I’ll scream, and I don’t care who hears." But the general, who was the deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and of American forces in southern Afghanistan, pushed on. The captain couldn’t scream.

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Then there was the military convoy plane they took together from Iraq to Kuwait, where General Sinclair allegedly fondled the accuser’s breasts and crotch against her will in plain sight of other soldiers.

Years earlier in Iraq, the general allegedly warned the accuser that if she ever told anyone about their affair, he would kill her and her whole family, and he would "do it in a way no one would ever know". He went on: "You need to know what you’re dealing with." The affair continued, but to the accuser it no longer felt consensual.  "I didn’t know how I could tell him I didn’t want to be with him any more. I was scared to death of how that would go," she said to a jury (composed of all male officers) at a court martial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, last week. According to rules of the trial, the identity of the accuser will remain anonymous.

Based on these accusations and more, the government charged Sinclair with sexual assault, sodomy (oral sex is included in the military's definition of sodomy), groping and fondling, having sex in public and abusing his government credit card in 2010. If convicted, the general would spend the rest of his life in military prison. Sinclair is believed to be the highest-ranking military official ever put on trial for accusations of sexual assault, reported instances of which have risen over the years in the US armed forces but remain perhaps the military’s best-kept secret.

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According to the military’s count, between the 1st of July, 2012 and the 30th of June, 2013, there were 3,553 reported sexual assaults, up 46 percent from the same period the previous year. That sharp uptick in reported cases could mean more victims are coming forward, and having a general stand trial might signal that a culture of impunity no longer exists, even for top brass.

But the prosecution’s case fell apart last week, when it was revealed that a cell phone containing texts between the two was in fact found weeks before the accuser had previously said. It seemed a minor point, but it undermined the credibility of the accuser to such a degree that the presiding judge suspended the trial and let General Sinclair work out a deal with prosecutors.

According to Stars and Stripes, the Army’s official newspaper:

Her credibility is central to the case. Is she a woman whose affair with a charismatic and approachable superior ended with him forcing her to perform oral sex and threatening to kill her and her family? Or is she, as Sinclair's lawyers have portrayed, a jilted lover who fabricated allegations of sexual assault when Sinclair refused to leave his wife?

General Sinclair agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges on Monday, including disobeying a commander’s order, misusing his government credit card and mistreating the accuser – but not sexual assault. Sentencing hearings are happening this week, and so far they've revealed even more tawdry detail. Yesterday, a witness claimed that Sinclair’s philandering was so well known to his comrades that a roast in his honour, in 2010, featured a skit in which a soldier portraying the general received pantomimed oral sex from a subordinate female officer. The general will likely be dishonourably discharged, but may avoid jail time.

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Whether this constitutes justice is hard to gauge, but pretty much everyone agrees the system in military courts is stacked against the accuser in cases of sexual assault.

To learn more about sexual assault in the military, I called up Helen Benedict, a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, as well as Sand Queen, a novel about the subject of military rape. Helen has also written a play, called The Lonely Soldier, that’s based on her reporting on the subject. It premiered this Sunday, at the History Theatre in St Paul, Minnesota.

VICE: How big of a problem is sexual assault in the military?
Helen Benedict: It’s of epidemic proportions. Studies have shown that 30 percent of women are sexually assaulted by their own comrades while serving, which is almost a third – and about 12 percent of men, likewise. That means that, in actual numbers, more men than women [are attacked] because there are so many more men in the military. Women only make up something like 15 percent of the forces. But, proportionately, women are one-in-three, and that’s twice as many in the lifetime of a woman in civilian life.

In this case, it seems like there was a consensual relationship between Brigadier General Sinclair and his accuser that might have descended into a sexual assault situation. Is that something that studies have shown happens very often? What is the nature of these sexual assaults writ large?
Writ large, it’s about the abuse of power, which is true in this case. Actually, among the military justices, among their own statutes, is a ruling that says anybody that uses his superior rank to either bribe or threaten junior officers into sexual favours is guilty of rape. So when you’ve got a dynamic like with General Sinclair, it’s already questionable whether it’s consensual. Likewise, on campuses and relationships between a professor and a student, it’s long been recognised that the idea of a consensual relationship when one person has so much more power over the other is questionable to begin with. It does seem, from what the accuser says in this case, that it was originally consensual, and then it turned abusive. But more often than not, most of the cases that come up are more just straight-up sexual assaults in the midst of a party or drinking. Rape is a crime of opportunity, so just grabbing a moment when the victim is alone and defenceless, like in the shower or asleep or drunk or otherwise easily overpowered. There’s a lot of gang rape in the military, too.

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What are the stats on reported instances of sexual assault versus instances that actually happened? What are those numbers, and how does it differ from civilian life?
The Department of Defence itself estimates 86 percent of sexual assaults are not reported. So that means the numbers they're giving are just a tiny slice. Among civilians, I think it’s also extremely high, somewhere around 80 percent. Because the rape victims are treated by law enforcement, by friends, by lawyers, by the courts. There's so much victim blaming and [the process is] so gruelling that many victims say that it’s worse than the actual assault.

And then within the culture of the military, there are all kinds of added stigmas. It’s a “blame the victim” culture. You’re told you failed as a soldier or a Marine because you didn’t protect yourself. You’re called a traitor because you’re complaining about one of your so-called brothers in arms. You’re told that you must have brought it on by drinking too much or taking a risk or flirting. Or, and this is one of the arguments that’s being used in the Sinclair case – it’s an argument that’s always used – you wanted this guy and you felt rejected, and so you’re having revenge by accusing him of sexual assault. That’s a very, very common weapon used against victims, which misses the point that victims go through hell when they report. So why anybody thinks they gain anything by doing this is pretty extraordinary. But that’s a very common defence.

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Are there any other specific aspects of the psychology of soldiering that either promote this kind of culture or detract from a more civil relationship?
Yes, it’s an extremely macho culture. Being a soldier or Marine is the most macho job in America, probably in the world. And it’s a misogynist culture. It’s a culture that’s been traditionally male, has seen women as loot or booty. That’s where the word booty came from. So there’s a very deep-seated, historical idea that soldiers have a right to women’s body as a kind of reward for their sacrifices and bravery and so on. And that attitude goes back to the first armies ever. You see it in the Greeks, in the Bible, in the old epics. And so, it really is deep in the military culture to not take women seriously as comrades, but to see them as objects. As prey.

Is the situation any worse in the US military than it is in other militaries around the world?
No one really knows, because other countries haven’t studied it the way we have, but there are beginning to be some reports now that Britain has a problem. Italy has a problem. In Israel, it’s interesting. There, from what I understand, the problem with sexual assault is about the same as it is in civilian life and in office life or the workplace.

What do you think this case demonstrates about the issue of military rape? Sinclair is one of the highest-ranking officers to face trial, but the case has fallen apart.
Well, it demonstrates a few things right now. It’s put a retrospective spotlight on the defeat of New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, which proposed to take military sexual assault trials out of the chain of command. Some people have said that, if that had gone through, this case would have gone even worse for the victim. That, I think, is utterly untrue, because there is an enormous difference between the way women or victims are treated within the military justice system and out. The fact that she is named, that she is out there in court and in public, that she has to face her accuser. That she’s had to go through all these gruelling examinations. The fact that she is called an accuser in words.

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In civilian life, she’s actually a witness in a rape case; it’s the state versus the accused, and she is named as a witness. She is not actually an accuser, and she’s much more protected in the civilian system. So I think it would have gone better for her. I don’t know about the verdict. Rape is an incredibly hard – it’s probably the hardest crime to prove because there’s often very little or no evidence and it turns out to be his word against hers. But she would have been treated with more respect, and she would have been less vilified, at least theoretically. So I think everybody is looking at that, but it just highlights how very hard it is to prove this and how hard it is to find justice for victims.

What are the arguments for keeping the decision to prosecute in the chain of command rather than having it in civilian court?
Their argument is just they don’t want anybody taking any of their power away from them. They say it undermines their authority as commanders, even though England and Canada have been doing it this way for 20 years. Israel does it this way. There are many of our allies that take sexual assault cases into civilian courts and out of the hands of commanders to avoid the conflict – the glaring, obvious, conflict of interest – and none of them have complained about their command being undermined. So Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, who is from a military background herself, has fallen into that in the bill she’s passed through the Senate. I think she’s deeply wrong and I think it’s tragic.

In fact, I think the commanders would actually be relieved to have this taken away from them because then they wouldn’t be in this horrible position of having to turn against their comrades and friends – some of them who might have saved their lives, for all we know – and having to prosecute them. Units in the military are close-knit. Everybody knows everybody, especially platoons. And so you inevitably end up with people making decisions to prosecute their friends, and that should not happen in a system of justice.

Is there anything else you want to add? Rather, is there something that's missing from the conversation around this case?
One of the things I see happening in this case is a tragedy I see happening in all rape cases. Every tiny slip-up of memory a victim makes is held as evidence that she’s lying. It forgets the fact that when people are traumatised, their memories mix a lot of things up. Also, none of us can remember every little detail about the past correctly anyway. It all becomes magnified and used against her in a way that is just so unfair. It’s heartbreaking. Also, there’s an underlying assumption in so many articles that somehow the victim has something to gain from doing this. That she’s going to make money or that she’s going to get famous. This is just not true. No victim comes out well. Even if the guy is prosecuted – even if he is convicted – the victim is still regarded with suspicion. She’s still had her sex life spread all over the place for everybody to gloat over, and it’s still deeply traumatic for her.

@kandavolu