Sex and Power in the US Military

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Marco Werman: Power, the saying goes, is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and there's a lot of power concentrated in the hands of US military leaders. That seemed to play a role in the consensual relationship at the heart of the Petraeus scandal, but it may also be a factor in the troubling instances of sexual harassment and rape among our nation's armed forces. Helen Benedict has spent a career looking at sexual assault and abuse in the military. She's a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism and the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. Benedict says relationships in the US military are especially prone to abuse because of the huge power differentials in the chain of command.

Helen Benedict: When one of the couple is superior to the other in the military, that superior person will have a lot of power over the fate of the subordinate, over that person's career and over that person's safety, so if you've got one powerful person, you know, the man usually, who's more powerful and more—and higher up the chain—the person he's having an affair with, a sexual relationship with, there are questions about how consensual is that relationship and how much choice does the subordinate person really have? Are they afraid of losing their career or getting punished if they say no? And how many relationships look consensual and in fact aren't because of that dynamic?

Werman: Adultery is strictly forbidden in the military and it's clear that if you abuse that link in the chain of command you will be held accountable. So what's going wrong?

Benedict: Well, adultery is up to the discretion of the people who investigate it, whether to call it criminal or not in fact. That means that adultery per se can be ignored or it can be used to push in different ways. I actually think that the military should get rid of adultery as any kind of a crime

Werman: Why?

Benedict: because it is, because, for example, a lot of charges of sexual assault are turned into charges of adultery. I've seen many cases where a man has raped a woman in the military and the man is married, the woman is not. She gets charged with adultery and punished for it, he gets off. It can be manipulated into a way of silencing people, of getting people off or of drumming people out for other reasons that aren't fair. It just seems archaic and too open to abuse and we shouldn't even have it anymore.

Werman: I'm just wondering as you've looked at sexual assaults in the military, was there ever a moment when you saw a case of adultery that really kind of through into question all your assumptions about the lines between the people who get prosecuted and don't.

Benedict: I've seen many cases where the injustice against the victim has been so breathtakingly awful. I came across many cases in which the assailant was not only let off, but promoted while the woman was punished. At the moment the rule is that any, any rape that's reported in the military has to be—whether you report it with your name on it or not as the survivor—has to be reported up the chain of command. In 33% of the cases when you report a rape it has to be reported to a man who's a friend of the rapist and in 25% of the cases it has to be reported to the man who is the rapist.

Werman: Where do those statistics come from?

Benedict: The annual reports on sexual assault in the military from the defense department. One of the things that advocates have been trying to do is to move cases of sexual assault out of the criminal justice system into, altogether into the civilian ones to avoid that conflict of interest and that protectionism where everybody gets hushed up. So there is a culture in the military of keeping quiet about abuses of the system to protect their own.

Werman: Helen Benedict, a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. Her most recent book is Sand Queen, a novel about the Iraq war. Thank you very much.

Benedict: Thank you.