Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I am at the 7:00 presentation on “Confronting the US Military’s Rape Culture” in Kohlberg 116 and the speaker, KP Smith, is about to be introduced by Leah Gallant ’14, the organizer of the event. The vast majority of the audience is female.
7:05 KP Smith introduces his talk by drawing a parallel between the conversations that have been going on about rape culture on college campuses and in the military. A recent Department of Defense (DoD) report said 26,000 service members reported being sexually assaulted in the previous year. So the military has tried to respond with hotlines and workshops and counseling services, but the number of cases of reported sexual violence increased by 37% in the past year. The person put in charge of managing the sexual assault was himself accused of sexual assault in the past so this system obviously has glaring issues.
7:08 Sexual assault has been a widespread problem in prisons set up by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, so prevalent that between the time of the beginning of the War in Iraq and 2004, there were 400 photographically documented incidents of abuse, which is a small percentage of the total number of rapes that occur.
7:11 In Abu Graib, a well-known prison in Iraq, a photo became public of a group of US soldiers torturing a hooded prisoner and started off more rigorous investigation of sexual assault in the military. It is actually increasingly easy to find evidence in their investigations as it is becoming more widespread for soldiers to pose next to the prisoners they are raping or torturing.
7:15 Smith moves to frame the discussion of this issue geographically, as he now a graduate student studying geography. His Google map shows US bases in the Pacific, and a lot of US military power is centered in Japan, especially on Okinawa, where 18% of the landmass of the island is owned by the US DoD.
7:18 Japan and many other countries with a US military presence have prohibited US troops from coming to bars, because of their widespread sexual assault of women. Rape cases in Japan especially are underreported compared to the US (where there is already widespread underreporting) because it is more of a taboo in these areas to admit to being raped.
7:21 Japan historically had a forced prostitution system of sexual slavery where they exploited “comfort women” justified by this alleged irresistible sexual desire on the part of soldiers that will channel itself through rape if it is not institutionalized, a similar logic now being employed in these Pacific US military bases.
7:24 The Recreation Amusement Association was the post-World War II US parallel to the comfort women system, in which more than 20,000 Japanese women were sold into brothels for the service of US servicemen. The logic that this would somehow undermine rape failed drastically, and in fact caused rape incidents to rise. Days before these brothels opened, there were 2 incidents in which US soldiers broke into these brothels and raped thousands of women.
7:27 In the Philippines in the late 1980s, right before the US bases were closed in the early 1990s, prostitution was institutionalized so that women had to be documented, registered, and examined by US doctors to be a prostitute for that US military base. Other countries have “status of force agreements” with the US DoD that makes it impossible for those countries to prosecute US servicemen for sexual crimes. In other words, this violence goes unpunished because the US government protects these servicemen.
7:30 Fast forward to the current situation. US foreign affairs is undergoing a “pivot towards Asia” and subsequently is surrounding China with military bases, increasing the issue of sexual assault there on the part of the US servicemen. The hopeful aspect is the fact that there are a growing number of focus groups in the region moving to confront sexual violence and assault. There was a well-known rape that occurred outside of Tokyo that went essentially unpunished because Japan did not want to upset relations with the US. This incident sparked protests across Japan and drew more attention to this issue.
7:34 Q&A session begins. One audience member asked how we can support this cause from the US. Another asks how to make this issue appeal to students on college campuses and draw more overt parallels between the issues we’re talking about here at Swarthmore and the issues of assault in other places in the world.
7:39 Smith answers that we should work to re-establish the protest as a not only acceptable, but also necessary form of political expression. We can gain so much just by following mass movements elsewhere that are doing things that we should be doing here. Progress will look like really basic conversation about things like the US military presence outside places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
7:42 Smith: It matters to be in a place that has a strong movement that confronts it, like Okinawa and Tokyo because the stigma against people who survive sexual violence on the part of US troops is strong.
7:48 One audience member asked whether there is a way to have an ethical, legal system of sex work or prostitution without victimizing and exploiting women. Another audience member replies that in Bogota, there is a “zone of tolerance” where prostitution is legal and not nearly so exploitative as in other systems in other countries.
7:52 Smith agrees that sex work should be decriminalized because criminalization, as is the case with most prohibitions, exacerbates the problem and there will be a problem a) as long as sex is a commodity, and b) as long as women are oppressed. He also posits that there will always be a power dynamic that cannot be overcome as long as the US occupies such a large percentage of places like Okinawa. The power dynamic of US dominance can only be overcome if the US lessens their presence in these areas.
7:56 The event ends, but the participants move to the Women’s Resource Center to continue the conversation.