In the military's closed society, there's a pervasive belief that "you know who can be trusted and who can't," Sacks tells National Journal. Anyone you know so well in your unit couldn't possibly attack someone else, the thinking goes.
This enhanced loyalty is vital in combat, but it's counterproductive when it comes to believing that someone has been assaulted. The victim who reports an incident becomes the "squeaky wheel"—the troublemaker, especially if performance starts to suffer as he or she processes the trauma, Sacks says. People think rapists are ugly and can't get sex another way, says Chris Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the Air Force Academy. They're not. "They tend to be more handsome, charming, and have more consensual sex than non-rapists, and [are] very good at cultivating the appearance of being a nice guy. So when there's an assault taking place, people who know this guy say, 'He's such a nice guy, there's no way he can do it.' " Afterward, of course, civilians assaulted in the workplace can look for another job if they want; troops are locked in for years.
Knowing they have to stay in an environment where the group may side with the perpetrator can discourage victims from reporting the attack. Christopher heard stories about women who lost their careers and friends by divulging the incident, so she bleached her sheets and tried to forget that her assault took place. But because her attacker started stalking her at the chow hall and en route to class, she finally came forward. When her commander in charge of the Navy detachment at the language-training base belittled her rape report, she started having panic attacks, lost 30 pounds, and began failing classes where she'd previously scored A's. Even other women turned against her. "This girl, she was Puerto Rican"—like the attacker—"called me a 'racist bitch.' " Victimized men may face even higher hurdles. "It's hard to imagine how could a man, especially a strong, tough man with a weapon, be sexually assaulted. So if they are, it brings up questions about their masculinity," Sacks says. "Do you want somebody on your team who is a victim, somebody who couldn't fight back?"
Assailants in the military who go unchecked in an environment skeptical of assaults can find more victims. Christopher later found the same woman who insulted her crying in a stairwell. "She said, 'I'm so sorry. He raped me.' "
Because of the long odds for a conviction and the high cost (in stigma) attached to reporting, the Pentagon worries that victims are disinclined to file complaints. New programs allow "restricted reporting" so victims can get health care without pressing charges or naming their attackers, but these options can reinforce the belief that sexual-assault victims are weak, need special treatment, or made it all up to milk the system. "The victim is immediately identified as a victim," says Frakt. Fellow troops may see the person receiving "all kinds of perks," including getting off work, obtaining counseling, and taking convalescent leave. "In an environment like the military, which treasures toughness and sort of dealing with your own problems, all of these services may feed a perception these people ... [are] not cut out for the military way of life." Already, male soldiers often see pregnancy as a tactic women use to escape a war zone. They may now believe that restricted reports are a "guilt-free" way for women to escape an unpleasant deployment, Frakt says. "Maybe they don't like their commander, supervisor."