Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
For some time, women's advocates have claimed that the U.S. military is perpetuating a war against women in its own ranks by condoning epidemic sexual assault. Now, a controversial Wall Street Journal columnist is under fire for opining that the campaign against sexual assault in the military has turned into a "war on men." But the talk of "war" is best cooled on both sides; the issue is far more nuanced than much of the coverage has suggested.
The piece by James Taranto, published last week, discusses the case of Capt. Matthew Herrera, who was court-martialed and convicted of sexually assaulting a female junior officer but granted clemency by Lt. Gen. Susan Helms -- a decision that has caused the general's nomination as vice commander of the Air Force space command to be blocked by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). According to McCaskill, the clemency "sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault."
Taranto lays out Helms' stated reasons for finding that there was reasonable doubt about Herrera's guilt. Among other things, key parts of the accuser's account were disputed by the (female) driver of the car where the incident occurred. The alleged victim also apparently lied about her text messages to Herrera after the encounter. The columnist concludes that stripping commanders of the authority to grant clemency, as the House of Representatives has voted to do, is a very bad idea.
It's easy to lampoon Taranto's claim that the outcry against rape in the military is about criminalizing "male sexuality." Yet, generalizations aside, his account of the Herrera case seems solid. The wife of a retired officer, who blogs at Villainous Company and has reviewed the records, concludes that Helms made the only appropriate decision.
There's no doubt that some victims of rape and sexual assault in the military have been denied justice. But there has also been melodramatic rhetoric that muddies the facts and does women a disservice: A recent editorial in the Newark Star-Ledger states, "If your daughter serves her country by joining the military, there's a fair chance she'll be raped."
Much attention has focused on a report released by the Defense Department in May, based on an official survey of active-duty military last fall, which estimated that 26,000 service members were victims of sexual assault last year. But few reports have acknowledged that the survey addressed a very broad range of "unwanted sexual contact," from rape to an attempted grope. At a hearing earlier this month, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told a panel of senior military officers that "not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the [buttocks] and a rape." But when it comes to brandishing inflammatory statistics, a lot of politicians, activists and pundits seem equally unable to make the distinction.
The coverage also downplays the fact that more than half of service members reporting unwanted sexual contact were male. Women are still much more likely to endure such experiences -- they constitute fewer than 15 percent of active personnel -- but the rhetoric of misogyny clearly oversimplifies the issue.
In the military, as on college campuses, many claims of sexual assault stem from murky situations involving some consensual intimacy and plenty of alcohol. Of course the victim's intoxication does not excuse sexual assault; but intoxication doesn't always equal lack of consent, either, and such situations easily lend themselves to reckless conduct and confused memories. To hold only men accountable is no way to promote equality.
By all means, let's punish wrongdoers and protect the innocent. But let's not allow ideology to trump fact. Political pressure to convict just to send the right "message" is dangerous for justice.