Tag Archives: sexual assault

The Invisible War

The Invisible War provides an institutional analysis of how and why sexual assault thrives in the US military. Through a detailed accounting of the problem—over time and across multiple branches of the military—the documentary shows the predictive factors of sexual assault and also the dynamics that inhibit prosecution and future prevention. The film is gripping and intense—like its subject matter (absolutely no pun intended)—and it mirrors many of the same strengths that served the directors in their follow-up film The Hunting Ground. Unfortunately, it also replicates many of the same weaknesses: while providing a rather sociological analysis of sexual assault within military bureaucracy, it stops short of identifying core, hierarchical systems that perpetuate it, namely rape culture and patriarchy. Those limitations aside, it’s a stunning film that is very convincing (especially due to its strategic and exclusive use of official government and military statistics throughout).

There are numerous factors that lead to sexual assault within the military’s ranks, not least of which is the heavy drinking culture that it fosters. This drinking culture is partially an expression of the highly masculine nature of the military, but is also reflective of the many needs to cope with the violence, control, and trauma experienced by its members (sexual or not). As with the sexual abuse that festers within the Catholic Church, the US military is also a closed system in which civilian oversight cannot penetrate, which allows sexual predators to safely exist. Also (at least in my analysis of the film’s main arguments), the US military is also a highly macho environment, wherein men prove their masculinity through conquest. This is why male victims of sexual assault—who are justifiably shown in the documentary—are even less likely to report than female victims due to the dual shame of homophobia and emasculation.

The factors that inhibit prosecution are even more troubling, since they illustrate that many more people are aware of the predatory, abusive, and violent actions of their peers, subordinates, and superior officers, but choose to do little to rectify these problems. Survivors of sexual abuse or assault have to file charges against fellow soldiers up the chain of command. As a consequence, one’s commanding officer handles the initial investigation (and, as The Invisible War shows, he may be the very perpetrator the survivor wishes to charge). Officers do not want to inform their superiors of rape allegations originating in their units since it reflects negatively on their command skills and thus their future careers. The rape culture that many military personnel accept prima facie includes numerous apologies for sexually aggressive behaviors, as with the soldiers who made excuses for aviators who groped female soldiers (“what did you expect to happen when walking through a crowded hallway of drunk aviators?”—apparently not respect). There is a weak and ineffectual “prevention” division within the military, known by the acronym SAPARO (Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Office) that engages in cringe-worthy victim-blaming via advertising and posters, but does not seek to understand predation nor target predators. If anything, SAPARO is like many bureaucracies’ legal office who seeks to avoid lawsuits or a public relations office that seeks to put a positive spin on horrible behaviors. The top military brass feel unaccountable to Congress, as witnessed by one incident the film shows: the head of SAPARO is ordered by her supervisor to not attend a Congressional hearing, despite Congress ordering her to attend and testify.

All in all, The Invisible War makes for a formidable case study on the many negative consequences of bureaucratic institutions (like large universities or the Catholic Church) who seem structurally uninterested, unwilling, or incapable of responding to malevolent behavior occurring within their own ranks.

The Hunting Ground

With sexual assault at American universities in the news in recent years, The Hunting Ground summarizes not only the collective outrage at its occurrence, but also the weak response by university administrators to the continuing crimes. The film’s best asset is its strong emphasis on institutional factors that lead to sexual assault, and the cover-up and avoidance of dealing with those assaults. Unfortunately, the analysis inadvertently neuters itself, stymieing the ability to truly grapple with the problem of assault on campuses.

Campus police fail in a variety of ways to respond to assault allegations and to encourage safer conditions for students. University administrators often join police to protect major power players on campus, who enjoy a disproportionate influence upon policy, especially related to the long-term economic viability of a campus and its brand: athletes and fraternities. Not only are these two student demographics more likely to be involved in sexual assaults than the general student population, but they are more protected by universities, too, due to their economic, social, and political power. (Of course, one reason for assault in the first place, is the existence of greater power on the part of perpetrators.) Universities are particularly concerned about a loss of their prestige if assaults become publicly and widely known, and they fear a subsequent drop in enrollment and potentially alumni donations.

The film interviews a lot of survivors, who painfully describe not only their assaults, but also the indifference they experienced when they reported the crime to others, including university employees. Two of the survivors—students at University of North Carolina—become activists and create a network of student survivors across the US. Most of the film’s interviewees are at prestigious universities (almost no one is at a state college or community college) and these activists clearly have social and cultural capital that they can employ, as well as a legitimate belief in the righteousness of their cause. They are successful in raising a significant ruckus by filing a Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education and even get news coverage in the New York Times. One of the nice characteristics of the film is that it shows these survivors and others organizing and being pro-active, working with other survivors who come forward with their own experiences.

Unfortunately, The Hunting Ground‘s directors fail to present an analysis that would help to more systematically interpret and solve the problem, which of course has been around for generations at coeducational universities. For example, certain helpful phrases are not mentioned anywhere during the film: rape culture, patriarchy, masculinity, and misogyny. It is difficult to know how a film focused on rape culture can so studiously avoid identifying rape culture. Indeed, the film doesn’t even attempt to define “rape” as a crime of power, rather than one of sexuality (of course, it doesn’t do the latter either, though). Further, the film is saturated with a certain liberal indignity that these educational institutions have simply failed to do something that people would otherwise expect them to do. But, if we understood rape culture as a manifestation of patriarchy, would we really expect a patriarchal institution like the American university to respond positively to allegations of sexual assault? This a-systemic analysis prevents us from comparing universities to other institutions that have had similar problems, like the Catholic Church and the US military (the latter of which was featured in an earlier documentary by the same directors, entitled The Invisible War). Consequently, viewers may naively conclude that these institutions may simply need to “work better”.

Some other immediate absences are apparent. Where are the second-wave feminists to help these current college students? Surely each campus has a handful around who could be (and likely are) advising not only survivors, but also activists. Indeed, a radical feminist analysis in the film would have helped to contextualize that this is not just a problem in higher education, but a general problem in society, due to patriarchy, masculinity, and rape culture. It affects universities disproportionately since universities are major, powerful institutions, where lots of young people are and thus lots of potential victims (especially young people just out of high school).

The film’s prioritization of elite American universities and their students is not surprising, but unfortunate. As mentioned above, no state universities or community colleges are shown in The Hunting Ground. Is this because the film makers and other upper-middle class people automatically privilege elite universities or because the problem is less severe at lower-tier schools (this is an honest question)? If so, perhaps less entitlement and fewer untouchable male students are enrolled at these schools to do the assaulting?

Who the perpetrators are is dealt with appropriately: known men, usual acquaintances, rather than random strangers. Still, most cases described in the film seem to be of randomly-met men at parties—in other words, the commonly-believed, but non-realistic perpetrators. Also, the film appropriately notes that it is a minority of men who are doing this crime upon a sizable number of sexual assault victims. Contextualizing who does these crimes would seem to lead to very easy advice to male viewers of The Hunting Ground. However, much more could have been done to lay out a challenge to college men. While the film does say “most of you men will not rape anyone”, it leaves unsaid that “you have the ability to influence the culture of misogyny that contributes to assaults and to condemn your fellow males for their endorsement or participation in it.” As it stands, many male viewers will have a sympathetic, but impotent, reaction to the film: I’m not doing these bad things and I won’t in the future, but there’s nothing else I can do. As Michael Messner writes in his book Some Men, only a small minority of men are rapists, but also only a minority of men are anti-sexual assault activists. The great majority of men stand-aside or quietly endorse this rape culture by failing to openly confront it. Consequently, the gauntlet needs to be thrown down more forcibly to college men to be active amongst their fellow males in disrupting sexual assault.