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NEW YORK – Around the world, people’s understanding of why rape happens usually takes one of two forms. Either it is like lightning, striking some unlucky woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time (an isolated, mysterious event, caused by some individual man’s sudden psychopathology), or it is “explained” by some seductive transgression by the victim (the wrong dress, a misplaced smile).

This illustration is by Barrie Maguire and comes from <a href=""></a>, and is the property of the NewsArt organization and of its artist. Reproducing this image is a violation of copyright law.
Illustration by Barrie Maguire

But the idea of a “rape culture” – a concept formulated by feminists in the 1970’s as they developed the study of sexual violence – has hardly made a dent in mainstream consciousness. The notion that there are systems, institutions, and attitudes that are more likely to encourage rape and protect rapists is still marginal to most people, if they have encountered it at all.

That is a shame, because there have been numerous recent illustrations of the tragic implications of rape culture. Reports of widespread sexual violence in India, South Africa, and recently Brazil have finally triggered a long-overdue, more systemic examination of how those societies may be fostering rape, not as a distant possibility in women’s lives, but as an ever-present, life-altering, daily source of terror.

The latest “rape culture” to be exposed – in recent documentaries, lawsuits, and legislative hearings – is embedded within the United States military. As The Guardian reported in 2011, women soldiers in Iraq faced a higher likelihood of being sexually assaulted by a colleague than they did of dying by enemy fire.

So pervasive is the sexual violence aimed at American women soldiers that a group of veterans sued the Pentagon, hoping to spur change. Twenty-five women and three men claimed that they had endured sexual assaults while serving, and lay the blame at the feet of former US Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates. The reason, the lawsuit claims, is that these men oversaw an institutional culture that punished those who reported the assaults, while refusing to punish the attackers.

When Maricella Guzman reported a sexual assault in her first month of service in the Navy, instead of being “taken seriously,” she says, “I was forced to do sit-ups.” Women soldiers who had served in Afghanistan came forward to speak with the filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, whose Oscar-nominated film The Invisible War exposed the scale of the problem. The fear of rape at US-held battlefields led directly to endemic illnesses caused by dehydration: women at the front, serving in 110-degree heat (43 degrees Celsius), did everything possible to avoid drinking, because rape was so common in the latrines.

The tales of colleagues, and even superiors, assaulting soldiers whose lives they are supposed to protect – stories that reveal the license that the attackers must have felt they had – are harrowing enough. What becomes clear from story after story in The Invisible War is a consistent – indeed, nearly identical – narrative of concealment, cover-up, and punishment of alleged victims, for whom justice was almost impossible to obtain through institutional channels.

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James Taranto has decided to inject himself into the military rape issue; problem is, his ideas are all of the antiquated 'blame the victim' variety. Image @PSAWomenPolitics

James Taranto has decided to inject himself into the military rape issue; problem is, his ideas are all of the antiquated ‘blame the victim’ variety. Image @PSAWomenPolitics

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The Wall Street Journal

Gen. Helms and the Senator’s ‘Hold’

An Air Force commander exercised her discretion in a sexual-assault case. Now her career is being blocked by Sen. Claire McCaskill. Why?


Lt. Gen. Susan Helms is a pioneering woman who finds her career stalled because of a war on men—a political campaign against sexual assault in the military that shows signs of becoming an effort to criminalize male sexuality.

Gen. Helms is a 1980 graduate of the Air Force Academy who became an astronaut in 1990. She was a crewman on four space-shuttle missions and a passenger on two, traveling to the International Space Station and back 5½ months later. Two days after arriving at the station in 2001, she, along with fellow astronaut Jim Voss, conducted history’s longest spacewalk—8 hours, 56 minutes—to work on a docking device.

In March, President Obama nominated Gen. Helms to serve as vice commander of the Air Force Space Command. But Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who sits on the Armed Services Committee, has placed a “permanent hold” on the nomination.


Associated Press
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

At issue is the general’s decision in February 2012 to grant clemency to an officer under her command. Capt. Matthew Herrera had been convicted by a court-martial of aggravated sexual assault. Ms. McCaskill said earlier this month that the clemency decision “sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system.”


Associated Press
Lt. Gen. Susan Helms

To describe the accuser in the Herrera case as a “survivor” is more than a little histrionic. The trial was a he-said/she-said dispute between Capt. Herrera and a female second lieutenant about a drunken October 2009 sexual advance in the back seat of a moving car. The accuser testified that she fell asleep, then awoke to find her pants undone and Capt. Herrera touching her genitals. He testified that she was awake, undid her own pants, and responded to his touching by resting her head on his shoulder.

Two other officers were present—the designated driver and a front-seat passenger, both lieutenants—but neither noticed the hanky-panky. Thus on the central questions of initiation and consent, it was her word against his.

On several other disputed points, however, the driver, Lt. Michelle Dickinson, corroborated Capt. Herrera’s testimony and contradicted his accuser’s.

Capt. Herrera testified that he and the accuser had flirted earlier in the evening; she denied it. Lt. Dickinson agreed with him. The accuser testified that she had told Lt. Dickinson before getting into the car that she found Capt. Herrera “kind of creepy” and didn’t want to share the back seat with him; Lt. Dickinson testified that she had said no such thing. And the accuser denied ever resting her head on Capt. Herrera’s shoulder (although she acknowledged putting it in his lap). Lt. Dickinson testified that at one point during the trip, she looked back and saw the accuser asleep with her head on Capt. Herrera’s shoulder.


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