Anecdotal Evidence, “Serious Allegations” and Coded Language

I come from an extended family with a history of military service, an aunt and uncles all served in the armed forces.  My cousin is currently serving.   I am proud of them.  None of this prevents me from criticizing what is by now well-known and understood problems in preventing and appropriately protecting victims of sexual assault and rape in the armed forces.  When CNN investigated reports of female service members being discharged through personality disorder diagnosis following rape and assault, there was no way I could let it pass without comment.

Then on Friday Adam Serwer, whose opinion I respect, retweeted a comment by James Skylar Gerrond stating that rape and sexual assault aren’t purely gendered problems because violence is more than just male on female:

RT @JimmySky Not all DoD sexual assault is male on female. It should not be viewed as a purely gendered issue. ( link)

I actually agree that we need to discuss the culture of oppression and silence that drives out and crushes victims whether they are male or female.  The CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey made it abundantly clear that sexual violence is massively underreported regardless of the victim’s gender.  This is an instance where there is no “what about the menz” diversion, but a genuine problem in sexual violence that affects men and women.  According to Service Women’s Action Network:

But moreover, throughout history, most military sexual assault victims have been men. Of the military sexual assault victims the Veterans Administration is currently treating, the VA reports almost half are male.

I fully support moves to protect all victims in the military and agree that the violence itself is not a strictly gendered issue.  Sexual violence is tolerated and sheltered regardless of the victim’s gender and that is unacceptable.  However, we can’t pretend there are not differences in the fallout after an attack and how male and female victims are treated when an attack is reported.

According to the story linked by Gerrond, the victims’ rapes were trivialized as “hazing” and while four of the attackers faced trial, they were not confined beforehand; one has already been allowed to return to his unit.  Due to the trauma of both the attack and added victimization of seeing rapists free led three victims to plan on leave the army over the next year, although they say they intend to re-enlist later.  Of those who were convicted, the harshest sentence meant merely two years jail time and a dishonorable discharge.  One of the rapists was allowed to plead guilty to hazing, assault and mistreatment, which included a demotion rather than a discharge.  One was acquitted, and the other is still awaiting trial.  All the victims feel that these rapists are getting off easy and that the Army is not doing enough to prevent future victimization.

Now let’s contrast this with what we know about female victims of rape and sexual assault.  For one thing, there is a cruel ritualistic element to these types of attacks on male soldiers that is tied up with incredibly toxic masculinity and desire to humiliate, hurt and dominate.  This sort of “hazing” rape attack is a brutal sort of initiation.  While these factors are a part of attacks on women, by vast percentages, when women are subjected to sexual violence, they are cornered and raped and/or sexually assaulted because the attacker wanted to rape them.  There is no desire to even pretend that these women are being attacked out of some bullshit unit custom or tradition.  And the reaction when and if they choose to report their attacks?  They are drastically different.

I tried to point out this difference, and how the consequences for victims are very much a gendered issue, hoping to get a more nuanced discussion going:

@AdamSerwer @JimmySky Systemic retribution where women are discharged using false psych diagnosis is a gender issue, however.

However, this is the response I got two hours later:

@slignot The data to support that (very serious) allegation is, at best, anecdotal. @AdamSerwer

Now I’ve never personally served so I don’t know what it feels like for former military personnel to respond to criticism of military structure and I don’t know James Gerrond.  But I know coded language shutting me down when I see it.

Let’s start out with the first red flag: that I have made a Very Serious Allegation™

Pointing out that someone who has disagreed with you is making a “serious allegation” is a classic debating tactic that attempts to paint an opponent as radical, given to hyperbolic language that shouldn’t be taken seriously.  As if you’re only allowed to try to make arguments that are deemed reasonable by them, the person who disagrees with you.

Sorry you don’t get to define whether or not my point is too radical to be discussed or not.  Next?  Ah yes, that the reason my very serious allegation can’t be taken seriously is because I’m only saying that because of anecdotal (“at best”) evidence.

Gerrond would like me to take his assertion that one article about male digital rape victims means that rape in the military isn’t a purely gendered discussion, but insists that any pattern people see in female victims who are retaliated against when they report attack is merely based on poor anecdotal evidence.  Friday afternoon Stephanie Zvan put up a post titled “Lessons in Evidence, Sexism Edition.”  I believe it would aid people like James Gerrond to take step back and read thoughtfully before they find themselves holding those they disagree with to impossible standards evidentiary scrutiny for no better reason than they don’t want the other person to be right.

“What sort of evidence will satisfy you? No, I mean specifics.”

So following her suggestion of verifying what level of evidence would be considered persuasive, I’ll list what we know right now (without further study) and ask why it isn’t enough, and what would be enough for it to be credible instead of “anecdotal at best.”

The Evidence

I’ll get the CNN reporting in a minute, but I want some hard numbers to begin with.  As reported by CNN, from a Freedom of Information Act Request by Vietnam Veterans of America, we know that between 2001 and 2010, the armed forces discharged more than 31,000 people under personality disorder diagnoses.  The Pentagon couldn’t give figures for how many of these cases involved allegations of sexual assault or rape, because they don’t even track this.

More damning, the Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic was able to get the following data on gender breakdowns of personality disorder discharges:

  • Army is 16% female, personality disorder discharges 24% women
  • Air Force is 21% female, personality disorder discharges 35% women
  • Navy is 17% female, personality disorder discharges 26% women
  • Army is 7% female, personality disorder discharges 14% women

And yet again, there is no tracking on what of these (if any) were involved in rape allegations.  In 2008, the Army revised the guidelines for personality disorder diagnoses and discharges, specifically requiring commanders to review whether it appears that the administrative separation is retaliation or tied to a PTSD issue (which by definition cannot be related to a personality disorder.)  This is small comfort to all those women who tell stories of commanders who accuse them of lying, intimidate, slut-shame and gaslight victims of assault and rape that these very superiors are in charge of reviewing their cases for fairness. What’s more, although the new guidelines outline more protections to ensure any personality disorder diagnosis of combat veterans is done by proper medical authorities, corroborated by another medical professional and finally endorsed by the branch’s surgeon general.  And not one ounce of this extra scrutiny applies to women, who are banned from active combat postings.

As for prevalence and evidence of a systemic issue, when Service Women’s Action Network first discussed the issue and asked victims of sexual violence to share their stories, they report they were “flooded” with responses.  CNN interviewed women from all branches of the military, including the Coast Guard, and report that they found a pattern of very similar experiences that occurred in every organization.  At what point do military women’s stories become more than “anecdote at best” and become worthy of trust and belief?

I would certainly support greater study and research of women discharged under this category to see if we can find hard statistics.  It seems like a great way of reaching out to those who obviously deserve help while gaining more statistical analysis (rather than mere anecdote).  But of course, how do you convince the appropriate people to authorize funding for a group of people who by definition were broken before they entered the military and ineligible for disability treatment?

There’s a saying relating to skepticism, where extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  For cases like this, it seems like there should be a plausible explanation corollary; that an explanation that fits within existing knowledge requires just basic review and fact checking.  We know that women have faced far greater denial of attack both in and out of the military and we know that there is a cultural history of blaming the issues raised by troublesome women on psychiatric causes.  Here is some relevant background to this specific issue:

  • Personality Disorders typically emerge in adolescence and reflect a long-standing pattern of “maladaptive” behavior, inability to maintain employment or relationships, trouble in school, run-ins with the law and/or difficulty functioning under pressure.  (If so, how do so many get into the military, pass basic training and advance through ranks before being diagnosed?)
  • Psychiatrists do not recommend diagnosing this disorder during or following a tumultuous period in a person’s life: a death, a divorce or following sexual assault.
  • Diagnosing a serious and permanent condition like personality disorder is a long and intensive process, yet these women reporting their diagnosis criteria describe a quick labeling and discharge.
  • As a society, we have a cultural heritage of punitively diagnosing, labeling and even institutionalizing women.  Psychiatry’s history in dealing with women is rather shameful.
  • Pentagon estimates of sexual assault and rape for 2011 is around 19,000.
  • The rate of false report for sexual crimes, depending on which source you use, is either in line with other violent crimes or much lower.
  • Despite the fact that a minority of military personnel are women, female victims of sexual violence constitute more than half of all those being treated for sexual assault by Veterans Affairs.
  • Male victims of rape and sexual assault are told that they were “hazed,” passing off sexual violence as an initiatory prank, while female victims are very often told that they are lying, that they were never attacked at all or had sex and then “changed their minds” etc.  Both are dismissed as victims, but women are consistently blamed as deserving or choosing what happened to them.
  • Female victims of sexual assault or rape often report that following their attacks, they are treated as problems by their fellow service members and commanding officers.
  • CNN found this same pattern of improper diagnosis and discharge reported by women discharged from all branches of the armed forces.

In the light of this background, claims that these women are make some sort of extraordinary claim (thus requiring extraordinary evidence) simply don’t make sense.  The idea that military personnel would exploit an option for military discharge of servicewomen perceived as problems is not merely plausible, it is in my opinion, probable.  And to be honest, after I received such a dismissive response from Gerrond, I’m not surprised that insurmountable challenges getting proper action for injustices toward military victims continue.

Just what more would make this evidence believable?

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