Chuck Hagel, speaking at West Point military academy today, called military rape a “scourge” that must be “stamped out.” Hagel went on, saying that sexual assault in the military is a “profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts.”
Good for Hagel for so publicly addressing an issue that has been so surrounded by silence. But what’s interesting to me here is Hagel’s particular use of terminology. Of course what caught my eye was the use of the word “sacred”. The use of this word is telling a lot of ways – you could think of it as implying that the duty of maintaining the military is sacred. There’s certainly precedent for that in American discourse.
I think Hagel’s inviting a comparison between the bonds of marriage (and thus, celibacy) and the bonds between solider and solider. I think it’s interesting he chose the word “sacred oaths”, because that’s the very same phrase – “Sacred oath” that Christians have used to refer to marriage, and often celibacy, for a long time. As much as I rip on traditional Protestant sexual morality, I’m actually a big believer in the idea of sexual morality. Really, I think fundamentalist Christians are right when they see a huge problem in the way that our country thinks about sexuality, but I think they’re wrong about what it is. I don’t see any reason why we can’t adapt these outdated ideas to a much larger problem than that of virginity: that of sexual assault.
Sexual assault in our country has long been a problem as invisible as it is horrible. In 2011, nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States told a government survey that they had been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Only a fraction of these go reported. And in the military, it’s even worse. Salon claims as many as one in three women in the military face sexual assault: not from enemy combatants, but from their fellow soldiers. Hagel’s right to call it a scourge.
And maybe it would help to back that up with religious language. I’ve long believed that religious language will have to play a large role in fighting sexual assault in this country for any significant progress to be made, since it – for better or for worse – defines what sexual morality is.
But this religious anti-sexual assault language, though it exists, is far from reaching the mainstream. Even though most Christians oppose sexual assault, many still accept the idea that sexual assault isn’t that big of a problem. As our “civilian rape” statistics show, the problem isn’t something that’s just because of a cultural patriarchy in the military but because of patriarchy at home. It takes more than a few words to undo rape culture. If Hagel can put his money where his mouth is and start to educate soldiers about why rape is wrong, encourage survivors to come forward, and more aggressively prosecute cases of military rape, then we might be getting somewhere. However, as long as people like Colin Powell feel comfortable publicly arguing that a solider who is convicted of sexual assault isn’t necessarily deserving of a dishonorable discharge, it’s going to be hard for progress to be made.