Should the Risk of Rape Keep Women From the Draft?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Susan Carpenter, raises that question for us:

I’d be fine with drafting women when DoD establishes a credible process for adjudicating sexual assault allegations and demonstrates that it works. The number of women affected by sexual assault to date is horrifying. It’s one matter for women to volunteer; it’s another to compel women under such circumstances.

In 2013, when Congress last gave the issue of sexual assault in the military serious attention, Garance Franke-Ruta provided this snapshot of the problem:

Of 3,374 reported cases of sexual assault in 2012, only 238 convictions were handed down, according to the annual Department of Defense report to Congress released Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s anonymous surveys of members of the military led it to estimate that more than 26,000 women and men were sexually assaulted in the U.S. Armed Forces last year. That number represents a sharp jump from the previous year’s estimate of 19,000 assaults. (In the wake of the growing attention to the problem of military sexual assault, thanks in part to the release of the documentary Invisible War last year, some of that increase may be due to greater willingness of assault survivors to speak up about what they’ve experienced -- something the Pentagon says it wants them to do.)

Here’s a trailer for the film:

Garance gets to the heart of the structural problem:

A woman who is assaulted and wants redress has to report the crime to her commanding officer -- her boss -- and press charges against one of her colleagues in the military, often someone who also works for her boss, all the while continuing to live near her attacker in a thick soup of overlapping interpersonal and professional relationships between her and his friends. The commanding officer, in turn, is held responsible for crimes committed in his unit, and penalized if a flood of reports and convictions come in, as they are seen as a negative reflection on his leadership. And it’s entirely up to him whether or not to push forward with taking a complaint to trail; he also has power to overturn convictions without explanation.

Another reader and ethics professor, Debra, also worries about rape for female servicemembers and conscripts—but from perpetrators outside their ranks:

Back in February, over at the website for Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, I ventured my own answer to the question of women registering for the draft—here and here. From a perspective of equal rights and obligations of citizenship, and given that all military positions are now open to women, it can be difficult to articulate any reasonable principle on which to prevent registering women for the draft.

And yet, I am not entirely convinced that adherence to equality as interchangeability serves the cause of justice, which is usually understood to mean treating like cases alike and different cases differently, particularly given women’s unique vulnerabilities to war crimes such as rape. My pieces wrestle with these complexities, as well as with the broader moral tradition of just war, on which most of our rules governing military engagement are based.

If you have any strong views about the risk of sexual assault in the military, especially if you’re a servicemember yourself, please send us a note.