Culture of Rape

Will an upcoming class-action lawsuit force the military to face its sexual-assault problem once and for all?

By Natalie Wilson

Linda Franklin, an active duty U.S. Marine sergeant, was beaten and strangled in 2007 by her then-partner, a staff sergeant. She notified the military brass about the crime, following procedures to the letter, trusting that he would be punished. Instead, a year later she found herself reporting to her attacker; he had been promoted to her ranking officer. Franklin—not her real name—was ultimately labeled a “domestic abuser” herself by a committee review board because a police report misinterpreted a witness’s testimony.

To Franklin, the ruling was just another example of the military’s old-boys’-club mentality. Her career as a Marine had been punctuated by less violent, but no less disturbing, sexual harassment by fellow Marines—usually her superiors. After she corrected a senior officer’s sexist language, for example, she suffered a nasty backlash. She never formally reported these incidents.

Franklin’s case is not unique. According to a 2003 study by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, at least one-third of all women veterans have experienced rape or sexual assault during their service. Thirty percent of military women experience domestic violence. In way too many cases, the victim is punished for reporting while the perpetrator goes unpunished.

A nine-month investigative series by The Denver Post in 2004 documented how numerous soldiers had escaped imprisonment for sexual crimes over the previous 15 years, some of whom even reentered the civilian world with no lasting criminal record. In fact, in Franklin’s experience, the military punishes soldiers for DUIs more regularly and more harshly than for sexualized violence.

It’s not just women in the armed services facing interpersonal violence and sexual assault by military personnel.Take the case of Christina Baker, who reported that she was raped in 2009 by a Marine captain she had met salsa dancing. “Yeah, it’s rape, [and] if nothing else we’ll be able to get him for sexual assault,” she recalls a military officer saying when she reported the crime. Nonetheless, the evidence was deemed insufficient for prosecution. Baker says the Marine later physically assaulted her again, and was accused of sexual assault by a second woman, yet he remains free and unpunished. Baker’s mental and emotional health declined after the attacks.

Susan Burke wants to dramatically change this brutal, unjust state of affairs. The Washington, D.C., attorney, who heads the firm Burke PLLC, is preparing to file a class-action lawsuit this summer to revamp how the U.S. military deals with sexual violence and assault committed by its personnel. The suit, in which Burke will represent a number of plaintiffs, including Baker, will ask for damages as well as changes in the military’s practices. As Burke puts it, “You shouldn’t have to agree to be raped in order to sign up and serve your country.”

Burke already has a well-deserved reputation as a crusader against violence by the military and its contractors. She spearheaded a series of lawsuits in 2004 against private security forces who allegedly committed torture and abuse on behalf of the U.S. military in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Later, she sued the infamous Blackwater firm on behalf of Iraqis killed and wounded in two allegedly unprovoked 2007 attacks on civilians in Baghdad. (The Blackwater suits were settled for a confidential amount; the Abu Ghraib ones are pending.)

The original plaintiff in her upcoming lawsuit discovered Burke on the Internet in connection with the Abu Ghraib torture suits. “I was really appalled by what she had suffered through,” says Burke of the email she received from the woman. After doing more research, Burke decided, “I should just open this up in case others need help. [The military’s] institutional tolerance is creating a culture where rape thrives.”

The military is one of the last institutions “that confers manhood on its members,” says military scholar Carol Burke (no relation to Susan), author of Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture (Beacon Press, 2004). And this model of “manhood” involves belittling women, contends Burke, an ethnographer and assistant professor of English at the University of California,Irvine,who comes from a military family herself. Linda Franklin agrees: “Loyalty to the Marine Corps means you have to degrade women.”

Although the military has made efforts to eliminate sexist speech, some recruits report that it still exists, says Professor Burke. Women soldiers, says Franklin, are called “fresh fish,” “target practice,” “wookie monster,” “walking mattresses” or “waste of money.” Of these names, “target practice” bothers her the most: It means to her that women in the service represent only “something to fuck.” Although forbidden, sexualized language is reported to be part of boot-camp training, as when recruits are taught a certain rifle movement by saying “up the skirt, pull down the panties.”

Talking about sexualized violence is a common bonding experience for male soldiers, Franklin says. She remembers sitting around a bonfire with a group of infantry men during field training and listening to them tell stories about giving women “the angry dragon” or “a jelly doughnut.” Sounds harmless, couldn’t be more vile and violent. As her fellow soldiers explained to her: An angry dragon is when a male ejaculates in a woman’s mouth and then smacks the back of her head, causing her to choke and blow semen out her nose. The jelly doughnut involves ejaculating on a women’s face, then punching her in the nose.

“We’re just basically seen as concubines,” says Franklin. That gross misperception of women soldiers as sex objects keeps with a historical framing of females as “sexual booty.” As Helen Benedict, professor of journalism at Columbia University and author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2009), explains, “Some men feel that if a woman joins the military she’s doing it because she wants to be used for sex. Why else would you join a violent, all-male organization unless you wanted it? So women ‘deserve’ it if they get raped.”

Rape occurs in the military nearly twice as often as in the civilian world, and rates of sexual assault are even higher in war zones. According to Duke University law professor Madeline Morris’ landmark paper “By Force of Arms: Rape, War, and Military Culture,” soldiers are several times more likely to commit rape in war zones than during peacetime.

They’re not just attacking women in the military: They commit violence against wives, girlfriends and families at alarming rates when they return home from battle. One study by the Department of Justice found that a quarter of veterans in state prisons were there for sexual assault, compared to just 9 percent of the general prison population. Studies show that those traumatized by combat service are especially likely to use aggression and violence against spouses and families.

Despite the military’s attempts to address this crisis in its ranks, the problem persists. Not only do military personnel harm fellow soldiers, these men continue to abuse women even after they’ve hung up their uniforms.

Like Christina Baker, Christine Smith-Briggs–also a plaintiff in Susan Burke’s upcoming lawsuit—is a civilian who was allegedly raped by a military man. According to her testimony, he attacked her while she was recovering from surgery at a friend’s house. Her subsequent experience was unfortunately typical: She reported the rape to military authorities, but they violated the procedures governing rape investigations and prosecutions.

Among other snafus, Burke says, they failed to assign a sexual assault prevention response counselor, as is required by Department of Defense policy, and recorded the wrong date of the alleged rape—a transcription mistake that resulted in Smith-Briggs being questioned about the veracity of her claims. Burke maintains that they then “lost” a key piece of evidence—the underwear she was wearing at the time of the attack—and thus failed to introduce it at trial. Her alleged assailant remains free. Since Smith-Briggs fears retaliation from this soldier, she keeps herself hidden and continues to suffer severe emotional distress.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives such as Susan Davis (D- Calif.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) have pressed the military to address sexualized violence, working on task forces and proposing legislation.

Slaughter, who has been pushing these issues since 2004, reintroduced the Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act (H.R. 840) in February of 2009; it would enhance prevention and deterrence programs, improve services for victims and strengthen prosecution of assailants. It was referred to several subcommittees but still has a long way to go. Davis, chair of the military personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, this February finally received the long-awaited report of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services and said in a statement, “There is a recurring theme in [the] report that…while the Department [of Defense] has done much in recent years to address sexual assault in the military, much more remains to be done.”

The military has attempted to address the problem by adding violence-prevention training and changing reporting procedures to protect victims. However, these changes have done little to change military culture. While the Uniform Code of Military Justice prescribes punitive measures for assault and rape, commanders exercise considerable discretion when it comes to meting out punishment. In Franklin’s case, her commander declined to penalize her attacker under the code, and as a result, she was forced to continue working with him. The system, she says, favors male perpetrators over female victims.

“We are really talking about a system failure,” says Susan Burke. “The military as an institution is failing to provide a judicial system that punishes rapists.” That’s why she believes that women deserve legal protection against soldiers who rape and assault. Although she realizes that her case is an “uphill battle,” her class-action lawsuit could prove to be a landmark, calling the military to task for condoning sexual violence, and helping to bring about a sweeping institutional change.

At the same time that attorney Susan Burke pursues legal remedies, Professor Helen Benedict insists that we ask, “Why do soldiers rape?” And that question will quickly focus attention on the hypermasculine ethos of the military.

It’s not something most people want to focus on. As military scholar Cynthia Enloe notes, there is a vast “romanticization of the American male soldier” that makes being critical of the military very tricky. We turn soldiers into heroes, and that makes them appealing to many people, both military and civilian. Linda Franklin suggests that the inherent trust we’re taught to have in our soldiers means that when they commit acts of sexual violence they’re not blamed. “If he rapes you…it’s your fault…you enticed a hero to rape you,” she says.

In de-romanticizing the soldier, it’s important to recognize that many men join the military to escape troubled or violent homes, according to Benedict’s book. Studies of Army and Marine recruits carried out in 1996 and 2005 show that fully half of male enlistees were physically, sexually or emotionally abused in childhood or after.

In addition, “We are woefully unprepared for returning vets,” says Enloe, “and thus fail to make sure soldiers reintegrate into society as high-functioning individuals.” Waging war is the military’s primary strategic concern, and anything not related to this directive tends to be downplayed or ignored.

But soldiers do not remain forever on base or in war zones. “Your military is in your community,” Franklin reminds us. And military training, with its historical culture of sexism, does not automatically switch off once soldiers return home or leave base. The realities of militarism and the violence and misogyny it spreads are not mentioned in the recruiting process nor in reporters’ stories of valiant service.

“I hope that the lawsuit plays a part in bringing about true and lasting system reform,” says Susan Burke. As an institution supposedly dedicated to protecting Americans, the military should protect those like Franklin, Baker and Smith-Briggs from the sexual violence that is an outgrowth of militarism and war.

Natalie Wilson is author of Seduced by Twilight (McFarland, 2011). A professor of women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos, she is part of the collaborative research team that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women (

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Excerpted from the Spring 2010 issue of Ms. To have Ms. delivered straight to your door, join the Ms. community .

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  1. civilian victim says:

    As a civilian victim of a Marine, I have contacted these Congresswomen offering proof of how my sexual assault was ignored, much like the other victims. These congresswomen seem to like to put there name in press releases and articles, but not investigate actual stories that they have to power to do.
    The problem is everyone knows there is a problem and likes to talk about it, but not hold anyone accountable or actually help victims. Slaughter, Davis, Harman, all talk a good game, but with all the victims out there, if they really cared their offices would be willing to help them and force the military to investigate these cases and hold the commanders accountable.

  2. I just want to also add to the list of Congresswoman pressing the military for justice is Niki Tsongas (D-MA), as evidenced here:… in this YouTube video, where she presses Secretary Gates about their removal of protections for victims in the Defense Authorization Act.

  3. As a victim of MST having served during Gulf-war era, advocate for nearly twenty years on this issue; I want to commend those who coming forward and to the law firm of Susan Burke and the consultants for speaking out. In my opinion and observation, there are many factor in play as to why the issue of rape in the military is not taken serious and a major factor is because so many individuals use their sexual prowess to advance their military status and to gain favor. These behavior confused the realities of truth when real rapes occur. Secondly, the lack of trust when reporting rapes is compromised when your command has an anterior motive to protect by covering up the wrongs. Finally, women will not support the agenda when divisive tactics are implemented by their command and threats are made and the military always use as a defense the complainants mental state or promiscuity to withdraw potential support from those in place to enforce or protect the victims. Retaliation from my experience has included drugging by DVA medical professionals, mind-control experiments; diagnosis of schizophrenia and or bi-polar and other psychotic related conditions. These dynamics simultaneously influenced on one individual usually results in isolation, being withdrawn and alienated from the help she needs and the whole sexual assaults get buried over years and compounded by lack of immediate support and individuals who have sought assistance for MST go away, die or become victims to the VA system being used as a guinea pig for every experiment and program that the government will fund dollars. This is systematic and it has worked for years and its powerful because no one wants to believe that the Pentagon and the DOD and all the other cohorts within our government take a blind eye when funding is a major part and keeping the highly trained military victims subjected and submissive to their plan. It works…that is why we need to have veterans from all war eras and distinctions at the table because their are unique characteristics in play. Most of those who are in the lead on this lawsuit; would not touch this issue two or three years ago The National Alliance of Women Veterans has never waitress on their position in twenty years and their members and supporters of women veterans have told stories of MST since serving in WWIi-even bing present during my 1993 congressional testimony where "Tailhook" victim received over a million dollars for "being groped" and a movie deal and where is she now? She took the money and like the many others who get paid off to keep it moving. We must commit to the crime of rape in providing the necessary truths and realities to include those that are impacted by race and other factors.

  4. gary noling says:

    agreed with the last post! I lost my daughter CARRI GOODWIN to military rape, he still serves, he was a repeat offender !

  5. The statistics reported say that 33% of women in the military have reported sexual harassment and rape and that a least doubles due to those who don't report it. Recruiters may as well tell women at the time of recruitment that they will most likely be raped. War is a necessary evil to protect rights of others and ourselves and take resources necessary for power and survival. I guess the military says anything lower than sanctioned murder is ok, huh? If there is a male in the military willing to stand up to his fellow, whether an office or senior enlisted, then he put himself in a position to make a choice over self sacrifice or self preservation compounded by the critical position of war he is already in. No one should be in this position.

    • Recruiters should also tell men they'll be encouraged to be sexual harassers and rapists.

    • bellaisa says:

      That’s a real interesting comment you just made seeing as some harassers moving towards more serious assaults are recruiters!! It happened to me and I should have run as far from enlistment as I could!! Actually, I tried to get out of the delayed enlistment program after the attempt by my recruiter, but I was lied to (ignorant of recruiting rules having been the first person in my family to join), so ended up going to active duty. My recruiter took me near a motel parking lot, in a remote location, instead of taking me home, after a test, laying his hands all over me, trying to convince me to go into the motel with him. I said no, he kept insisting, touching inappropriately as I fought him off. I was lucky that day!! I moved to get the heck out of the car and who should I see coming down the isolated road…a police car!! The recruiter saw it at the same time, once I was out of the car, and then he started begging me to please just get back in the car…he would take me straight home!! Stupid, stupid girl (well, that’s what I think about it now) because I should have flagged down that officer!! Instead, I got back in the recruiter’s car and he did take me straight home. However, I will always wonder how many other girls he did the same to, maybe even been successful at assaulting further, but I could have reported it to the police officer right then and there. By the time I got home, I felt so disgusted with the whole Army idea, I no longer wanted to ship out. But, they do move fast!! I always figured he must have said something, or he ran scared perhaps from being found out because by the time I got back down to the recruiting station, going to go confront him there, he was gone!! I was told he retired, now another recruiter would take over to get me to the end point of shipping out. When I said I wanted to drop out of the DEP, don’t want to go active, I was given the spiel about all the rules blah, blah, blah!! I ended up fulfilling my commitment to ship out, learning later, I could have gotten out of it. Naive girl…bet if I had told it (screamed it at the top of my lungs if they didn’t want to listen) about what my recruiter had done, they would have stopped the lies!! Well, that was just the beginning of what I learned about assaults in the Army because as a trainee in a co-ed company in the later 70’s, it became an always watch your back sort of deal while in basic, AIT, moving along into permanent party. This is not new by far!! But, I still see the lies and cover-ups continue…

  6. This is UNJUST!
    How dare they commit such crimes and still be glorified!
    I heard similar stories like this, and just like the ones in the article they always get ignored!
    I praised the women who take action and want this topic to be addressed.
    Our congressmen and crongresswomen need to pay more attention to this topic, if they continue to do so, then We the voters should withdraw our votes. These crimes happen to men and women in the military and so the problem needs to be talked about and solve. Time after time, after time – we keep hearing the same stories and yet nothing has gotten recolved. Kudos to Susan Burke and her staff, and i hope that the gathering of stories and prove come to play when a legal battle is won…. Lets keep fighting!!

    • Jan Air ForceVet says:

      The reason they do it is simple- BECAUSE THEY CAN. The reason they get away with it is strict adherence to that credo “the mission comes first”. Removing someone from duty to be held, prosecuted and detained is far more damaging to the unit, its operations and male-member morale than simply threatening the victim into quiet submission and military leaders justify their actions this way. I have heard this on 60 MINUTES and many other investigations by the media from military leaders who speak anonymously. If the military had any interest in stopping it every military member’s DNA would be cataloged, every reported assault would be investigated, prosecuted, and punishment severe- including loss of all veterans’ benefits and military incarceration. Catching an active-duty rapist should be much easier than one in civilian society- if they ever begin actively doing so the sexual assaults and harassment will decrease dramatically. Yes, “the mission” would be shaken up as some of its leaders and key players would suffer damage to their careers and more- and that is precisely the catch-22 that keeps it from happening unless Washington demands the military be accountable for these crimes and stop them – no excuses- period.

  7. Does anyone know what it is like in European military organizations? Are their statistics and anecdotes similarly damning? Perhaps they have attacked these problems in ways the US military has yet to learn.

  8. As a roommate of a DRUNK in the military who treated me like trash UNTIL her drunk self accused someone of rape and wanted me to testify..NOT!!!! See that part NEVER gets told because it doesn't make great news. These young girls go into the military and drink like sailors and yell RAPE when they wake up and it wasn;t Brad Pitt they slept with……

    • I call bullshit on your victim-blaming and rape apologism.

    • bellaisa says:

      I call bullshit on your crap, too!! I never drank, never smoked weed, nor any of that other feel good substances and it happened!! BTW, we didn’t have access to any of that in boot camp, but crap was happening there, too, by our very own drill sergeants, and others, in our company!! Yep, sure needed to watch our backs and each others’…

      • I was a former sexual assault bystander reporter for the Navy, the two biggest excuses I hear about rape victims is 1.) She lied and 2.) She was flirty. So lets break this down…
        1.) Chances are, if a service girl is drinking with service men on a regular she is going to get raped. I know because I saw it all the time. Then, people assume because this girl passed out from drinking (date rape drugs normally) then she deserves to get raped. If a man passes out from drinking does he deserve to be raped?
        2.) If a girl really was so “flirty” would she report sexual assault? What defines “flirty”? Does “flirty” mean she deserves to be raped?
        One last thing, In countries where women are deeply oppressed, if she dresses improperly, that a means for rape. If she looks another man in the eyes (flirt), that’s a mean for assault. Is that what we want for this country? Excuses for women to be raped?

  9. Not sure if anyone on here is aware of this, but sexual assualt and sexism in the Defence Force has recently become a hot topic in Australia also.
    Last week an 18 year Aiforce Cadet went to the media because a fellow cadet put a webcam in her room, then skyped himself having consensual sex with her to his friends in another room, she only found out that she had been taped when someone told her weeks later.

    Of course the men involved suffered no consequences and remain at the accademy. Meanwhile, she is being constantly called a slut by the other cadets, causing to her to take leave from her training.

    On the positive side, her courage has promted several other victims of the Defence Force to come forward. Today the Government here announced that they would be conducting several official inquiries into numerous examples of sexual assault and sexism in the Defence Force. Hopefully, they will also act on the findings of the inquiries and finally bring about some change and justice.

  10. Hey all! Thanks for this great piece. Want to make sure you know about the film, “The Invisible War” – it won the Audience Award at Sundance and we just had our first screening on the Hill this week. The film deals specifically with Military Sexual Trauma and the deplorable cover-ups by the DoD and the Pentagon. We encourage you to visit our site, and get in the loop. We are:,

  11. “Rape culture” is truly a part of military culture. There is also an epidemic of domestic violence by servicemembers against military spouses & children right now as well. All these men coming home with PTSD, TBI, and the like, and who are developing drinking and drug problems, are also coming home and hurting their spouses and children. Just like rape, it is ignored (even tacitly condoned) by the military.

  12. cherri mcneil says:

    i am a victim of mst that happen in West Germany when i was twenty-one. i was coerced,threaten and physical attacked by my Plattoon leader,Fisrt SGT and his best freind. I reported the incident to MP and went to the military doctor to be examined. Unfortunately I was transfered out of the unit and was offered a article 15 which I refuse opt for a trial. I was led to belive that I was going to have a trail however my new commander had initiated a chapter 5 discharge which I found out from a female soldier that work in Jag. I had to go to my Battalion Commander home on base and confess all that had happen to me concerning Physical assult, Sexual assults, and emotional trauma i experinced and reported in order to prevent them from discharging me from the military. Thank God my Battalion Commander did a investigation the following day and I was tranfered to another unit and remained in the military.Unfortunately I can not say what hapeen if anything happen to my superiors.

  13. cherri mcneil says:

    Presently i am suffering from depression, anxiety and humilation.The time I when was in miltiary there was no programs or assistance for MSt so I held all this in for years until now my voice can be heard and i feel some relief out of my bubble life I have been living.

    You see my face and think nothing is wrong
    You can’t see inside my soul my lost spirit and the woes.
    You hear me speak of a nightmare thats so real
    I wished I never ever joined the military and share this awful ordeal

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