The Campus Advocacy Resources & Education office hosted a lecture on military sexual trauma (MST) by assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work Kristen Zalesky in the Flying A room Thursday morning.
Zalesky’s talk highlighted the prevalence of sexual assault in the military and drew parallels between the experiences of civilian sexual assault survivors and sexual assault survivors serving in the military. Zalesky detailed the incidence of MST compared to civilians and discussed stark similarities and contrasts between sexual assault in the military and in civilian life. About a dozen students, primarily interns in the CARE advocacy office, attended the lecture.
According to Zalesky, there is a parallel between sexual assault at universities and within the military. According to Zaleski, one in two women and one in 12 men experience MST in the course of their service.
“When you are in a Greek system or university system you have your own reporting process,” Zalesky said. “You have your own police department you have your own way of tracking sexual trauma and you have a culture in which you are kind of confined, and when we’re talking about the military, we’re talking about that in the same way.”
Zalesky said the military and UC face similar difficulties in addressing sexual assault, and neither are particularly effective.
“[UC system’s framework] rarely results in a conviction of the assailant and it’s also true for the military,” Zalesky said. “This university culture, it’s not that different from someone who is 18 and chooses military service, in terms of the sexual boundaries.”
Zalesky also said the common ideas surrounding how sexual assault occurs usually do not match reality.
“These are the typical assumptions we make about sexual assault: it’s a random guy in a dark alley; it’s someone we don’t know; they have a weapon,” Zalesky said. “Most often, people who are raped are raped by somebody they have a trusting relationship with — it’s a family member, it’s a boyfriend, it’s an ex-boyfriend, it’s a best friend.”
According to Zalesky, this difference between the idea of a typical perpetrators and the reality of who they usually are makes reporting more difficult.
“That’s why when you look at rape reports it’s so hard to get somebody to report because it wasn’t so clear. He wasn’t wearing a mask in a dark alley as a stranger with a knife right? It was your best friend who you’ve partied with for a year and a half,” Zalesky said. “The reason that we hesitate to report sexual assaults is because we’re so confused because it doesn’t match up with the construct of what we imagined.”
Zalesky also said those in the armed forces who report are typically required to stay in service, as leave for survivors is not granted most of the time, which makes avoiding assailants virtually impossible. For this and other reasons, sexual assault survivors in the military have fewer options than their civilian counterparts, Zalesky said.
“From day one this is your brother, this is your sister right? We are a military family,” Zalesky said. “Even if you want to take time off, even if you want to go see your mom, you can’t because you signed this [enlistment] contract.”
Zalesky also said the number of male survivors of MST are roughly equal to the number of female survivors — just over 300,000 survivors of both genders — but males are far less likely to report than females.
“Men are being brutalized as often during military service, but women come forward and it’s more socially acceptable to be a woman that’s been raped than a man that’s been raped … we have an epidemic of men who aren’t talking about their sexual assault.”
Zalesky closed with a brief discussion on advocacy and how to help survivors, followed by a question and answer session with the audience. Zalesky said a more effective strategy for combating MST is not necessarily to encourage women to “not get raped” but rather encourage a culture of bystander intervention.
Third-year global studies and feminist studies double major Clair Breen said student engagement in issues related to MST is important for continuing advocacy on the problem.
“I think anything we can do is awesome, especially as college students,” Breen said. “Advocacy work is hard though because it’s hard to see a difference.”
Breen also said her main take-away from the presentation was related to the difficulties MST survivors face in addressing their assaults.
“I took away that it’s very hard to report in the military — that it’s a really prevalent issue,” Breen said.