Defining violence, contextualizing military sexual trauma

Servicepeople in uniformWhich forms of violence are the U.S. military willing to recognize? An Air Force veteran and survivor of military sexual trauma (MST) has raised the question in an interview with USA Today.  Twenty years ago, an airman raped recent enlistee Lisa Wilken in her dorm room. When she reported the assault, though, military prosecutors discouraged her from pursuing a case against her assailant because, as they said, the attack hadn’t been “violent enough.”

Restricting the definition of violence is a powerful weapon of the violent. Within an honest discussion of harm and coercion, the violence of sexual assault–regardless of the physical specifics–is indisputable. Yet the ability to declare authoritatively which forms of injury deserve the label allows the military to avoid unwanted responsibilities, no matter the truth of its claim. How convenient, when facing Wilken, to pretend all violence draws blood.

The lie is nothing new for military leadership, nor is it inflexible. A narrow definition of violence, fixated on immediate physical damage to the exclusion of psychic and economic harm, makes space for the U.S. to call an occupation a peace-building operation. When those limits unhelpfully constrain they are temporarily waved: how else could we name civilians combatants? These are semantic games, but they’re deadly—and, if you’re only concerned with American lives today, they subject U.S. servicemen and women like Wilken to tolerated sexual assault.

It shouldn’t be shocking that the military uses similar tactics to dismiss rape survivors and sidestep rules of war. Yet when we talk about MST we too often ignore the Armed Forces’ mission and methodology, as though this context were incidental. The reporting system’s reliance on the chain of command receives some rightful criticism, as does the pervasive casual sexism of the newly co-ed force. But every institution has its own obstacles to accountability, and each brews its own special house misogyny. We forget that this particular institution is an explicitly violent one. We pretend what our fighters do abroad is irrelevant to the invisible war they fight against each other.

Ana Marie Cox’s essay on “the real roots” of the problem, published today by the Guardian, provides a welcome exception to this rule. Cox focuses primarily on the psychological repercussions of war for those who fight, only implicitly acknowledging a broader military ideology at fault, but she clearly draws the connection between military function and sexual assault. In the wake of last week’s remarks from Senators Sessions (R-AL) and Chambliss (R-GA) attributing MST to porn and hormones, she writes:

In discussing the problem of suicides and depression [in the military], some analysts have wondered about the role played by the tactics of modern warfare: it is more random, more prolonged, “asymmetric”, and, as we have been reminded this week, fraught with confusion about who the enemy is. Troops serve longer and more numerous tours, and function for longer periods under tangential supervision. There’s a clear psychic toll.

It’s a truism among feminists – if not senators – that rape is a crime of violence, not of sexual attraction. It’s a function of rage, not lust. Could it be that the real crisis in today’s military is tied to not who these soldiers are, but the nature of what we’re asking them to do?

It’s no surprise that Democratic anti-MST champions like Senators Gillibrand (D-NY) and McCaskill (D-MO), for all their good work, aren’t highlighting the connections between modern militarism and sexual violence. A whiff of that thinking would label a politician unpatriotic forevermore, and there are more fun ways to commit career suicide. Yet disappointingly few Left-feminist camps are willing to use their own power to name violence–we too can play that game–and disrupt anti-MST advocates’ nearly comical silence about the nature of American warfare.

Perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves that a radical vision of demilitarization justifies inaction on MST (it doesn’t), or maybe we’re hesitant to criticize the work of war in which survivors, as well as perpetrators, engage. Whatever our hang-ups, let’s get over them–and fast. Internal violence is inevitable within a violent force, but if we can identify the particular rot that permeates from the battlefield to unsafe dorm rooms, perhaps we’ll have a chance to build a more just military for both American troops and the rest of the world.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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