We like our victims pure. They never are. Which brings us to the latest round robin of characters whose mess is in the public square, inciting smiles, head shakes, and outrage, and returning us to the age-old debates about the relationship between women and men. Really, our ideas about relationships are telling not for the scandal unfolding, not for the overachievers at the center of the parody of power, but for how hard it is to talk when we agree.
We agree cheating on a spouse is bad. We agree the heads of organizations like the CIA and the European Allied Supreme Command, organizations whose major assets are personal integrity, singular commitment to missions, and a priority set that sidesteps distractions and turns aside temptations, should not be e-mailing civilians excessively, or circumventing national security by setting up a docs account online to describe what college students I know describe as “hot monkey sex.”
Where we disagree is who had the power. Do powerful men ever become weak? Do women ever gain the upper hand in those mutual but also one-sided relationships of power? Do men in power use women? Do women use men in power?
This morning, online, one New York Times commenter sees it this way. First, she quotes from Maureen Dowd’s column:
the dangers of young ladies with exuberant, flirtatious, “unguarded and imprudent” manners visiting military regiments and preening in “all the glories of the camp.”
Then she writes:
I am appalled at you, Ms Dowd, for insinuating that the women are to blame for the generals’ own lascivious tendencies. Why, you sound as apologetic as McCain (who Charlie Pierce categorizes as post-menopausal), Lindsay Graham (I am tough too, look at me), and Peter King (panderer in chief) on how sad it is that Petraeus allowed himself to be led by ‘little Petraeus’ than he did matters of the Republic.
You have company, too, you know. You are right there with Pat Robertson who rationalized Petraeus’ behavior thus:
“Who knows? The man’s off in a foreign land and he’s lonely and here’s a good looking lady throwing herself at him. I mean, he’s a man.”
And yet, as we speak, there are now three top generals mired in sexual controversy. Shame on you for putting this on the women!
In the rush to defend women, I think it’s wise not to lose sight of two connected issues, one large, one small. The smaller issue: by saying it’s all the fault of men in power, women are permanently consigned to status as victims. I first ran into this paradox studying slavery, where scholars removed all power and wiles from the slave community and turned slaves into faceless minions. Gradually, I began to understand that a slave who leveraged the system in his or her own interest through cooperation was in the long run more likely to resist and act independently than those who simply accepted the system without challenge. The line to be watched and not crossed was cooperation never went against the interest of the larger community. Advance yourself, but don’t sell us out.
The differences of slaves in the house and the field really were a difference of the importance and value of of an observed group ethic. Whose interests must be protected? Mine or the group’s?
Women are a group whose status is hard to escape. A barrage of national name-calling, targeted legislation, and commercial ads target American women and divide them from their sisters worldwide, who are assaulted daily in the hundreds of thousands, from infancy to old age. In South Africa, a women is more likely to be raped than to be able to read.
But rape is not a part of the scandal of the day. No one denies the affair was consensual. No one denies the affair. But who had the power? How was power defined? And were women as a group violated by the acts of the men or women involved?
That’s the bigger question: underneath these personal acts, how are women seen in the larger context? Is there a generals problem or a broader military problem? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wants to review the generals’ code of conduct. That’s a disservice. He is looking in the wrong direction. Secretary Panetta needs to order a review for every branch of the military service, bottom to top, to determine how women are treated and to discover why they are assaulted more than 10,000 times a year.
Over the last decade, studies report nearly one-third of women in the military will be assaulted during their active duty careers. Ninety percent will be harassed. Ninety percent of those raped won’t report. As one veteran was quoted, “None of my friends who were raped on active duty reported it. Or if we tried, we were told to shut up for ‘morale.’ Working with your rapist on a daily basis isn’t a lot of fun, believe me.”
Military women are more likely to be raped than killed by enemy fire. At some veteran medical facilities, forty percent of the women treated report having been raped. The problem is so endemic, the Department of Defense expert on military sexual abuse once ignored a House committee subpoena to testify. During the Iraq war, it was not safe for women to shower alone, without another woman present.
Rank has privileges. So the sex affairs of generals appear as indiscretions, more tragic than violent, more sad than vicious, more failed than brute. But not so for those outside the immediate scandal. Military culture still blames victims and punishes those who resist. If some military men at the top are using power as an aphrodisiac, right next to them and down through the ranks other military men are freely, and with impunity, escaping accountability and scrutiny, using force to make women submit to sex against their own will. The current scandal should make this contrast emerge from the shadows. Review the leadership but also focus on the entire culture, which is pervasive with violence against women. That will make the scandal have a meaningful and lasting impact on the military, on women in service, and on the safety and security of women around the world.