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 .

Comments on this piece? We want to hear them! Send to To have your letter considered for publication, please include your city and state.


Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.