116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sexual Violence and a Culture of Silence in the U.S. Military

Jason Higgins, University of Massachusetts Amherst

My research investigates Military Sexual Trauma and institutional problems in the military justice system. Reporters of sexual violence are often punished, while the perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. This paper analyzes sexual violence in Vietnam War-era films and discusses their impact on American memory, military culture, and veteran experiences.


One in three American military veterans in prison are convicted of sexual violence—compared to five percent of non-veteran prison populations. What about the culture of the U.S. military accounts for such a vast difference between veterans and non-veterans? In 2016, nearly fifteen thousand service members were sexually assaulted, over half of whom were men. My research investigates rape culture in the Armed Forces by analyzing the military justice system’s responses to reports of sexual assault from the Vietnam War era to the present. I identify a systemic pattern of punishing victims, while offenders often go unprosecuted. Many survivors of rape in the military have received other-than-honorable (OTH) discharges, disqualifying them from the benefits of veteran status such as PTSD treatment, disability compensation, V.A. healthcare, and the G.I. Bill. Veterans with OTH discharges are also more likely to become homeless, incarcerated, or commit suicide. To better understand these injustices, this paper studies the cultural history of sexual violence in the military.

Rape culture in the military has significant implications for the field of Veterans Studies, as we investigate the social costs of maintaining the largest military on the world stage. With over 800 military bases around the globe, military sexual trauma is a matter of national security. The problem is both global and domestic. As the military justice system fails to prosecute sex offenders in its ranks, perpetrators continue their behavior after service, committing violence against the communities they swore to protect.

If the underlying problems in the military are both institutional and cultural, then we can study the influence of film and literature on American memory of war. Popular culture both reflects, responds to, and reinforces martial manhood—a performative and violent hyper-masculinity. My presentation will analyze sexual assault and the threat of rape in popular films from the Vietnam War era, revealing the ways sexual violence has shaped American memory of the war in Vietnam and contributed to the alarming number of veterans incarcerated for sexual assault.