Saturday, August 30, 2014

An Epidemic of Sexual Violence

For the recent exhibit I worked on, Sindalu: Chamorro Journey Stories in the US Military, I wanted to make certain that the story we told included the experiences of Chamorro women in the US military. This turned out to be more difficult than I initially imagined.

Chamorro women have served in the US military since the Korean War, but it is only recently that people really recognize that they are a central part of the military. This isn't just on Guam, but throughout the United States, women have served for a long time, but are always thought of as being supplementary, extra bodies, hence there is often ridiculous irritation when they demand certain rights or demand to be treated fairly. For most people the military is a man's domain, and so women are generally seen as weakening the grand military phallus of the nation, with their complaints about harassment, rape and lack of equality. Women who have served in the US military for generations have endured so much disrespect, physical and sexual violence and discrimination. Even if on the surface there appears to be more equality for women now, as every woman who reaches the highest ranks of the armed forces is lauded as a pioneer and women can now serve in elite combat units, it is important to not forget the structure that led to so much abuse and discrimination. Especially because the system may continue to exist, even if the rhetoric and the formal rules have changed.

Rape has never been something legal in the US military, but it is so pervasive and the hiding of it has become so second nature, some reports have called it an epidemic. Different studies show that at least one out of ever 10 women who have served in the military, reported not being raped or sexually abused, but being gang raped. In my research I was hoping to find out if Chamorro women had some experiences such as this, but few were willing to share. Many were willing to share being discriminated against on the basis of race, but few wanted to share any details or admit to being discriminated or harassed because of their gender. It was interesting, because even if abuse actually did happen and they would talk about it, they wouldn't name it discrimination, not wanting to use certain labels to give what happening meaning, even if clearly called for it. In some ways I can really understand this unwillingness. For so many people, the institutions you were or are a part of give you so much of your identity, and by using certain labels it can make you feel as if the problem is not what happened, but the entire system itself. If you refer to the abuse you received as a barrier to be overcome, or obstacles, or a way of proving yourself, and proving you are as good as everyone else, it gives voice to some aspects of your struggle, but also protects the system itself and in fact reproduces it. Although the system led to you being treated in terrible ways, it was all for the best, because it made you tougher, made you who you are, and all worked out in the end. But if you really focus on what happened and how the system enabled your trauma or the violence against you, it becomes difficult not to see the entire system itself as being corrupt or as being the problem.

Chamorros and other non-white men faced similar problems before and also struggled with whether to recognize the system as the problem or individuals as being the problem. Was the trauma they experienced something that could change or was it inherent? For most, things would change if they just proved that they were just as good as white men. But for others they held on to their mistreatment and judged the entire system and sometimes the United States as being racist and not worth their patriotism.

I collect Guam mentions, or instances in media where Guam is mentioned, usually briefly and without any real substance and sometimes analyze them. In my dissertation for example I utilized this quiet a lot in order to talk about the paradoxical fullness and emptiness of Guam. How it can be full of military value and strategic importance, but empty in terms of much else, and that being one of the reasons it continues to be a colony of the United States, that most have trouble recognizing as a colony. I came across one from several years ago, in an article by Ralph Nader on the website Common Dreams. It doesn't go into Guam in details, as with most Guam "mentions." But it is simply invoked as a site where a woman on her way to Iraq was raped by her fellow soldiers. 

Outrageous Words, Outrageous Deeds

Published on
Now that the Don Imus flameout has once again demonstrated that vile words energize many activist groups and many media more than do devastating deeds, it is useful to revisit this strange dimension of public furor.

The latest three word outburst in Mr. Imus' practice of sexist and racist remarks may be compared with the continuing sexist and racist behaviors that civic opponents would argue should at the very least receive equal time from those who become indignant over cruel, bigoted language.
On March 18, the New York Times ran a lengthy cover story in its heralded Sunday Magazine about widespread sexual harassment and rape of female U.S. soldiers by their male colleagues in Iraq. Written by a reporter, Sarah Corbett, the article combined the available official studies, and statements of specialists, with poignant narratives by women soldiers whom she interviewed intensively.

The evidence she amassed included a report in 2003, funded by the Department of Defense (DOD), which declared that nearly one-third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the V.A. said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Of that group, 37 percent said they were raped multiple times, and 14 percent reported they were gang-raped.
A change in DOD policy in 2005 allowing sexual assaults to be reported confidentially in "restricted reports" led to the number of reported assaults across the military rising 40 percent.

There are still many reasons why female soldiers are reluctant to report sexual violence, especially in combat zones. Solidarity is survival. Complaining about your superior or soldiers of comparable ranking ruptures the working hierarchy and its military mission. In addition, it is often the woman's word against the man's word. As one sailor told Ms. Corbett, "You just don't expect anything to be done about it anyway, so why even try?" She said she was raped at a naval base on Guam before being deployed to Iraq.

Female soldiers coming back from Iraq relate their fears of even going to the latrines in the middle of the night for the fear of being sexually assaulted.

Sexual violence is often dismissed as fabricated, exaggerated or consensual. It is important not to tarnish many upstanding and respectful male soldiers and sailors with sweeping generalizations.
Abbie Pickett, who is a 24 year old combat-support specialist with the Wisconsin Army Naitonal Guard, told Ms. Corbett: "You're one of three things in the military—a bitch, a whore or a dyke. As a female, you get classified pretty quickly."

Particularly since the Tailhook episode in 1991 which involved sexual violence against women at a naval party, the Pentagon has become more concerned about such assaults. There are far more women in areas of combat now as well. Over 160,000 women have seen active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan already.

Bottom line to all the reports—official and individual—was summarized by the New York Times this way: "Many have reported being sexually assaulted, harassed and raped by fellow soldiers and officers." (For more information see

Assault and rape are crimes, deeds of devastating impact on the lives of these young women. They are not just vile words. Yet in the month since the New York Times article was published, there has been almost no public outrage and no demands for more investigation, more corrective action, more law enforcement.

The members of Congress—women and men—have not mobilized for action. The press did not follow up on the article—"The Women's War" by Ms. Corbett. The National Organization of Women (NOW) condemned Don Imus in no uncertain terms. They have not yet demanded multiple actions to be taken on this continuing violence against women.

Aside from the indifference of the male legislators, Congress is now graced by the largest number of women lawmakers in its history. The Speaker of the House is a woman—Nancy Pelosi. Sure, she has her hands full with the Iraq war. But this is an internal war against many women who need her leadership and her status to spark remedial or preventative action.

Words inflaming more than deeds is also too often the case when racial epithets are uttered by public figures. All those groups and civil rights leaders who conquered and ended the Don Imus media empire should ask themselves what have they done in any sustained manner, given their power and media access, about the brutality of racism by commercial interests in the urban ghettos. Deaths, injuries, disease and loss of livelihood are a daily occurrence, apart from raw street crime and drugs. Little children seriously poisoned by lead, asbestos and other toxics. Whole neighborhoods redlined without adequate corporate police protection. Predatory lending, predatory interest rates, marketing shoddy products and contaminated food proliferate.

Where have been the cries of outrage, the demands for removal of these conditions and prosecution of these crooks and defrauders? The abysmal conditions are daily, weekly, monthly. They have been occasionally reported in gripping human interest terms and statistics and maps.

If only the offenders used words, instead of committing these awful deeds. Maybe there would have been action, front page headlines and prime time television and radio coverage. If only they used words!

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