Naval Academy case exposes a backward America

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the attorneys who were cross-examining the accuser in the Naval Academy case. The defendants’ attorneys were the ones questioning the woman.


Three ex-U.S. Navy football team members accused of sexually assaulting a female midshipman, from left: Eric Graham, Joshua Tate and Tra'ves Bush. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy Football)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 2, 2013

You know how you can get all wrapped up in a good summer novel and have to remind yourself where you are when you put it down?

Well, America has made it pretty hard this past week to remind myself that we do not, in fact, live in the brutal 18th-century society I’m reading about, where rape is unacknowledged and young women are treated as disposable.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Let’s take a look at Montana last week, where a former teacher was sentenced to just 30 days in jail after admitting to raping a 14-year-old student, who later killed herself.

The Yellowstone County judge said the girl was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as the teacher, who was 49 at the time of the ongoing rapes.

Later in the week, after he was slammed across the country, Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh issued a statement apologizing for his comments. That didn’t change the ridiculous sentence.

Timeline

Past coverage: Naval Academy rape allegations

But that’s Montana, you think. The judge wears a bolo tie, what can you expect?

Okay, so let’s go to D.C., our enlightened nation’s capital.

Here in Washington, defense attorneys in a military hearing have made their point loud and clear that if you report a sexual assault, they will make your life hell.

A U.S. Naval Academy midshipman who says she was raped by three fellow students last year finally had her case acknowledged by the academy. And she was ravaged by the attorneys of the defendants.

They asked her whether she was wearing a bra or panties that night. They asked her to describe how wide she opens her mouth during oral sex. They asked her if she “felt like a ho” the next morning.

What? An attorney said “ho” in a hearing?

It sounded like a witch trial. But her interrogation, which ended Sunday, came at an Article 32 hearing, which is the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing to determine whether the case would go to trial, or in this case, a military court-martial.

The woman said she went to an off-campus “toga and yoga” party at the football house last spring. She drank way too much and blacked out. The next morning, her back was sore and she didn’t remember much. She didn’t report anything.

“She learned from friends and social media that three football players were claiming to have had sexual intercourse with her while she was incapacitated,” her attorney, Susan Burke, said in a statement when I wrote about the case in June.

It was her fellow classmates, who were horrified by the online bragging of the three football players, who reported the case.

Reluctantly, the woman told academy officials what she could remember. What did the academy do? They punished the 21-year-old for drinking.

She and her attorney began to wonder if the academy would ever investigate the players.

Now, the defense attorneys are trying to make her regret that the case ever got this far.

The questions have been invasive, irrelevant and demeaning.

Legal experts say they would never be able to go that far — the sexual-position questions, the cross-examination about her underpants — in a civilian trial.

Perhaps this cultural difference explains a recent Pentagon report, which stated that while as many as 26,000 service members said they were the targets of unwanted sexual contact last year, only 3,374 incidents of sexual assault were reported.

Those who believe women should be kept out of the military will point to the report and the Naval Academy case as proof. But hold your horses there, Internet Rousseaus.

The Pentagon report also said that the majority — 53 percent — of the people who said they were assaulted were men. And they were assaulted by other men.

Take the case of Greg Jeloudov, who told Newsweek that two weeks after he joined the military in 2009, he was gang-raped in the barracks by men who said they were showing him who was in charge.

“It must have been your fault. You must have provoked them,” is what he said commanders told him.

Imagine the grilling he would have faced if they took his report seriously.

“Did you ever walk out of the showers with your shirt off?” “Did you ever talk about sex with your bunkmates?” “Did you ever watch porn with other men?”

Nope, at least 10,000 men wouldn’t go there, wouldn’t report a sexual assault.

The Naval Academy case underscores the reasons behind the rising concern over the way the military handles sexual assault cases.

But this isn’t about women in the military. It isn’t about the hidden sexual assault of men in the military. Nor is it about a backward judge in Yellowstone County.

It's about America still not understanding the difference between consensual sex and rape.

The woman at the Naval Academy is not pretending to be a prude. She described for attorneys times in the past when she did want to have sex and consented to it. But the stuff those football players bragged about online — she didn’t even remember it. At that point, it’s rape.

Consensual sex happens between two adults who both want it.

Rape is about violence, domination and power.

It shouldn’t be that hard.

And yet, it still is. Just like in the 18th century.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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