There’s no safe space for women in military from sexual assault

Posted on : 2021-06-08 15:48 KST Modified on : 2021-06-08 15:48 KST
For female soldiers, no place is safe from sexual crimes, whether it is within their unit, at post-work gatherings, or even in the quarters where they take their rest
(Getty Images Bank)
(Getty Images Bank)

The recent suicide of an Air Force master sergeant in the wake of a sexual assault incident is prompting growing calls for an investigation into sexual crimes within the military and reforms to the way in which such cases are handled.

The master sergeant, identified by the surname Lee, took her own life after reporting the assault against her, only to be met not with protection and support but with pressure to back down, attempts to smooth over the matter, and a slow and slipshod investigation.

An examination of the current situation with sexual crimes in the military suggests that Lee’s death was no random case. Instead, it was the product of a deep-seated insular male-centered organizational culture that is lenient when it comes to sexual crimes against female soldiers.

On Monday, the Hankyoreh performed a keyword search for “female soldier” on the online military court verdict reading and search service, conducting a complete analysis of the 91 rulings returned — from Jan. 1, 2015 to June 1, 2021.

Of the cases where a female soldier was the victimized party, the vast majority of cases — 88, or 96.7% — involved sexual crimes such as indecent assault or quasi-rape. Twenty of them, or 21.9%, were serious sexual crimes such as rape or quasi-rape.

The results show that no place is safe from sexual crimes for female soldiers, whether it is within their unit, at post-work gatherings, or even in the quarters where they take their rest.

Among the factors responsible for the widespread sexual crimes in the military are the culture of strict obedience, sexual objectification of female soldiers, and widely held perceptions in and around the military that hold female soldiers to be inferior to male ones in their handling of duties.

Four out of 10 sexual crimes against female soldiers take place within unit

Settings that ought to have been professional spaces within military units have transformed in an instant into the scenes of sexual crimes: garages, logistics offices, ranger training sites, smoking areas, firing ranges and barracks.

Examination of the rulings showed the victim’s own unit to be the most frequent place where sexual crimes occurred — reported in 40 cases, or 43.9%.

Physical contact and indecent assaults have occurred in every sort of working environment, often couched in a pretext of “joking around” or “offering encouragement.” Perpetrators have nudged female soldiers’ buttocks with their knee while the soldiers were carrying out duties; pressed close against them to “correct their firing posture”; or poked their side or hips for no particular reason.

Acts of indecent assault even took place in vehicles traveling to different units for training support. Typically, the lower-ranked victims put up with the humiliation and endured the indecent assaults, only reporting them to military investigators after they had taken place numerous times.

Serious crimes such as rape and quasi-rape have mainly taken place outside the unit and been particularly associated with drinking in groups or individually. These cases include three that took place at restaurants, eight at karaoke establishments, and seven in vehicles on the way home.

During drinking gatherings, male superior officers would furtively grope the bodies of lower-ranked females; at karaoke bars, they would force them to take part in slow dances and kiss them. Eleven of the cases involve acts of quasi-rape or quasi-indecent assault, where a male superior officer sexually assaulted a lower-ranked female soldier who was drunk and unconscious in a motel, residence, or vehicle.

Sexual crimes also took place in private settings where female soldiers went to rest. Twenty-three percent of the crimes against female soldiers included in the rulings took place at the female soldier’s residence.

In 10 of those cases, a perpetrator snuck into the female soldiers’ quarters to steal items or commit molestation. In 2019, a soldier in the Army received a suspended sentence for breaking into the female soldiers’ apartment late at night on 14 occasions, mixing his own bodily fluids into the body wash located in the bathroom there.

Still other cases involved illegal photography with mobile phones or miniature cameras. In May 2020, an Army soldier was caught taking videos with a mobile phone that had been placed among the blades of a ventilator in the female soldiers’ shower. The victim, in this case, was a woman who worked alongside him in the same unit.

In 2017, an Air Force member was caught sneaking into the female airwomen’s lounge and setting up a hidden battery-operated camera.

Six out of ten cases involve assault by superior officer

“I guess you’ve got your mind set on a short-term discharge.”

An Air Force officer who was fined for assaulting a lower-ranked officer in January 2020 repeatedly stressed that he had “primary evaluation authority” over the victim. This exemplifies the most common form of abuse found in the rulings: a superior officer exploiting personnel evaluation authority over a junior leader aspiring to long-term service or advancement. It also explains why the majority of cases — 57, or 62.6% — involved sexual assault by a superior officer.

The victims were most frequently non-commissioned officers (18 staff sergeants, six sergeants first class) who had either just been appointed or were awaiting evaluation for long-term service. In another 13 cases, the victim was a company-grade officer, such as a first lieutenant or captain.

In the ruling, perpetrators were typically people with direct or indirect influence over personnel evaluations for junior leaders, including 13 cases, each involving non-commissioned or company-grade officers and five involving field-grade officers.

For victims aspiring to a career in the military, the prospects of long-term service were used as a tool to persuade them into letting the sexual crime slide.

In 2017, a command sergeant major at one Army unit assaulted non-commissioned officers with his unit, whom he urged to “think of me as your father.” When the victims reported it, he pressed them to ignore the incidents. “How can you blame your command sergeant major when you’re supposed to be in this for the long haul?” he is said to have asked them.

Victims ended up delaying their reports or deciding not to file them, citing concerns about the potential negative impact on their long-term service prospects.

A ruling for a sexual assault case in 2017 relates how the victim decided not to report the assault because she wanted to “pursue her dream of becoming a professional soldier, including long-term selection and advancement.” She finally did report it after being pestered by continual requests from the perpetrator to attend drinking gatherings.

Even female superior officers have not been safe from sexual crimes in the military. Nine of the reports, or 9.8%, concerned acts of sexual offense or assault against a female superior officer by a lower-ranked one.

The cases illustrate how in the military, the gender hierarchy can supersede the one based on rank. In 2018, a medical corps member was given a suspended sentence for quasi-indecent assault after groping the body of an unconscious female superior officer who had been brought to the infirmary.

Another six cases involved sexual insults against a female instructor by trainees who had just arrived at the recruit training center. In July 2020, a trainee was given a suspended sentence for insulting a superior officer after saying, “This bitch talks a lot,” to a female instructor giving an explanation on exercises at a personal firearm range at the recruit training center.

In February 2020, a trainee at the Korea Army Training Center in Nonsan was also given a suspended sentence for imitating a female instructor’s voice and making sexually insulting remarks during grenade training.

Prison time sentencing rate of just 16.4% in military courts

Compared with civilian courts, military courts have been reluctant to punish perpetrators. Prison sentences were handed out in only 15 of the cases examined, or 16.4%. Another 53 suspended sentences were given (58.2%), along with 15 fines (16.4%) and three deferred sentences.

In terms of the rate of prison sentences given, the percentage is lower than the 25.2% of civilians indicted for sexual crimes who receive prison sentences in their first trial.

A number of the punishments could be viewed as slaps on the wrist. In 2017, the High Military Court acquitted a religious officer who had rubbed the neck, shoulders and lower back of a female soldier during a meal. In its decision, the court said the act “took place at an open restaurant and appears to have been a regular lower back massage.”

In October 2019, a common military court with the III Corps sentenced a soldier to two years in prison suspended for four years for illegally breaking into the female soldiers’ quarters and distributing nude photos of a minor whom he had met through Twitter. As reasons, the court cited the fact that he had “no record of a suspended sentence or greater” and “had confessed to expressed remorse for all his criminal acts.”

In their sentences, military courts have also accepted arguments for leniency citing the perpetrator’s “many years of faithful service” or “petitions submitted by fellow unit members.”

In 2019, the High Military Court handed out a suspended sentence to a defendant accused of sexual assault after convincing a junior female soldier to visit his room. Despite the severity of the crime — and the victim’s continued insistence on seeing the perpetrator punished — the suspended sentence decision came after a “sincere request for leniency on the part of his commanding officer and fellow unit members.”

Need for reflection on a culture that does not view women as equals

In addition to outright sexual crimes, the analyzed rulings also showed numerous examples of sexually objectifying female soldiers or viewing them as inferior to male ones in terms of their ability to carry out duties.

In 2016, a female officer left her unit after being subject to sexist remarks from her commanding officer, a lieutenant major who declared that he “hated female soldiers.”

“Female soldiers are comrades when it’s beneficial, women when it’s not,” he was also reported to have said.

In 2017, a soldier was fined for slander for an accusation made against a female officer. The same soldier had been quoted as saying, “I can’t undergo an evaluation because my hands start trembling whenever I’m in front of a female soldier. The CBR officer is so beautiful she makes my hands shake.”

Bang Hye-rin, an official with the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, said, “The reason sexual crimes against female soldiers happen so frequently, to senior and junior ones alike, can ultimately be seen as stemming from perceptions in the military, where female soldiers are not viewed as equals.”

“That’s why sexual crimes against female soldiers should not simply be treated as the isolated acts of certain male soldiers. There also needs to be reflection and improvements to overall attitudes in terms of masculine culture within the military,” she urged.

By Lim Jae-woo, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to []

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles