Sexual Assault in the Military: Victims or Survivors?

In reporting on trauma, terminology can be a sensitive and important topic. At the Dart Center’s Covering Suicide Workshop last September, some family members of people who had taken their own lives did not like the phrase “committed suicide,” because it suggests a crime has been committed. And recently, mental health professionals have been debating whether the diagnostic term, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), discourages military men and women who might not want to report their symptoms for fear of being stigmatized.

This week, in the Columbia Journalism Review, Helen Benedict, an author of two books of women at war and an article that formed the basis for the documentary, The Invisible War (see trailer below), discusses the issues she has faced covering sexual assault in the military. They include the difficult question of whether to refer to someone who has been sexually assaulted as a “survivor” or a “victim.” “The word victim looms too large,” Benedict writes. “So, we journalists are left with a dilemma: How are we to explore the exploitation and abuse of human beings without calling anyone a victim? Is this even possible?”

Benedict takes on the issue in light of the military’s recent decision to lift the ban on women in combat, but she points out that women have already been serving in crucial and dangerous roles. 283,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 1991. One thousand have been wounded, and at least 150 have died.

They have also endured a surprising level of harassment and assault, according to military statistics and Benedict’s reporting. Last year, a study by the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, showed that one in three military women report having been sexually assaulted while serving, the majority by fellow military service members. “That means about 52 women a day,” Benedict writes. Some military women she interviewed said they carried knives to protect themselves from other soldiers, and tried to avoid going to the latrine at night for fear they would be raped.