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Rape in the Air Force

Atif Z. Qadir

Can you picture Anna Kournikova with a Kalashnikov? It is strange but timely mental image as the Russian Army recently announced a beauty contest intended to attract women to serve in the military. Aptly named “Beauty in Epaulets,” new women recruits who participate are rated on their singing, comeliness, ballroom dancing, cooking, and accuracy with a rifle. A recent Associated Press picture of the event showed the shooting portion of the competition, held on the vaunted range of the elite Tamanskaya Division. In it, two smiling blondes are pointing their rifles, while a male counterpart stands by with a bleak expression matching the overcast weather.

Some may say that this beauty pageant is an earnest effort to attract females through traditionally female activities, but instead, this is a potent example of female objectification in a dominantly-male environment. The notion that this would attract women to the army is laughable in comparison to the gender-typified roles that it entrenches. First, it assumes that these “female” activities are genuinely enjoyed by the majority of females as opposed to them simply being societal mores. Second, it implicitly advertises the Army as an environment where beauty, singing, and cooking, among other things are valued. Winning an urban assault on separatists in Grozny would not be contingent on Kournikova-like curves or a performance of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, so perhaps they are more for the pleasure of the men that are “supposed” to be doing the real work.

As awkward as the Russian Army’s approach to encouraging equal access to serve in the nation’s military is, it draws an interesting parallel to the recent United States Air Force Academy scandal, which involves the objectification of women as sexual challenges.

The Air Force’s top general, John P. Jumper, recently declared the importance of cadets in the USAFA to “learn basics of mutual respect for each other.” This was in response to a recent report to a Senate Panel that conceded that there had been 56 reported cases of sexual assault or rape against women at the academy in the past 10 years. This number is twice that of official reports from several weeks ago, and probably much lower than the real number of cases, as women were probably scared or ashamed to report their abuses.

One former cadet, who transferred to the University of Arizona, was raped by an older peer who offered to give her a ride to her dorm, and then attacked her in his car. She declared that although the “majority of women are raped and molested” there are no reports because of fear of an official investigation, shame, ridicule, retribution, or dismissal by the staid academy and its administration. Even more appalling is how this aggressive behavior has been effectively condoned by the USAFA. Of the 56 reported cases since 1995, only one male cadet faced a court-martial (but was later acquitted), and 8 have been expelled. The female cadet noted that she did not receive a response from the administration for 1 year, and was told that her file had “mysteriously disappeared.”

There have been no investigations of cases before 1995 because the USAFA did not keep records of sexual crimes from 1976-1996, the first twenty years of women being a part of the community. It could only have been worse during that time; the mother of the female cadet, herself an alumnus of the USAFA and a 20-year veteran of the Air Force reported that as a student at the academy in the late 1970s, dozens of administrators and students wore yellow hats emblazoned with “LCWB” (Last Class Without Bitches), representing the last all-male graduating class of 1979. A career Air Force General, she reported that the staunch bastion of “the good old boys” has been maintained, as she frequently sees LCWB hats, as well as the acronym written on signs and on license plates at academy sporting events. She reported being told “tough, deal with it” when she asked an adult male to take down a LCWB sign at a pep rally. Such widespread apathy from males involved with the academy is shamefully appropriate at an USAFA so divorced from reasonable cultural standards.

This oppressive environment has led to the quiet acquiescence of disillusioned upperclass women, who the female cadet noted told her to “expect to get raped. If it doesn’t happen to you, you’re one of the lucky ones. If you want to graduate, you don’t tell, you just deal with it.” The power that older students have over younger students, by which young males can be forced to coax female counterparts into situations that facilitate sexual exploitation, perpetuates this oppressive system. This cadet’s report was “lost” and only received a response from the USAFA one year later, this March.

The only immediate changes that have been a revision of living arrangements. This, the administration notes, “will reduce opportunities for sexual predators.” This effectively creates an alibi for the real cause, which is the extremely perverse social climate and power structure that allows for such crimes. It is in fact trying to ameliorate the situation by removing the means, but not the compulsion which is rooted in the male-dominated, aggressive military environment.

The shameful Air Force sexual assault scandal has prompted similar investigations at other military institutions including the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. Could we also draw parallels to the MIT community? Although MIT is the only elite American university to have always admitted women, it has traditionally been an extremely male-dominated environment because of its focus on engineering and science. This has encouraged the creation of gross gender stereotypes that are a reaction from male students who lack confidence, many unaccustomed to challenge in technical subjects, to countless females that are as intelligent or more so. Males feel threatened and invoke the trump card of admission rates (“you got in because you are a girl”) without realizing the traditional societal preclusion of females from pursuing engineering and science. Another troubling notion is that MIT girls are “fat and ugly,” troubling because males are not judged as critically by society in terms of appearance. Both are tools for males to reassert dominance over women, and are indicative of larger more flagrantly destructive patterns of male aggression.

These conditions point to the failure of traditionally male-dominated institutions like the USAFA, and perhaps MIT as well, to create a safe academic and social environment for women. It is ironic that last week in a news conference President Bush relayed his appreciation for the “commitment, idealism, and sacrifice” of American soldiers in confronting a dictator with a “long history of reckless aggression, and terrible crimes,” while the USAFA, which prepares future leaders for the United States armed forces, condoned unthinkable oppression and violence against its own members. It is in fact these members that are charged to uphold the American ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice by participating in an invasion of Iraq, when they are not allowed it in their own nation.