12 Feb

The Invisible War: Framing Rape in the Military

Posted By Politybooks

The Invisible War, a film about rape and sexual assault in the US military, is one of five nominees for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary.


invisible war

Given the attention the film has received, a critical analysis of it is important. The film conveys both the extent of sexual violence against women in the military and the general lack of response to women’s reports. Invisible War recommends that the military should take reports of violence against women seriously, primarily by prosecuting rapists. However, there are a number of disappointing aspects to the film that undermine an understanding of the violence the film itself purports to explain. Indeed, what’s lacking in the film is a feminist sociological understanding of rape. Below, we offer some questions and comments to help you draw out the strengths of the film and to place its disappointments in context. 

Should you read this blog before seeing the film, we recommend reading Chapter 9: Interpersonal Violence (if you’ve already read the chapter, we recommend reviewing it), especially the Focal Point, which challenges the notion that rapists are depraved strangers. 

1      Does the film represent the diversity of women in the military?

The group of women who compose the active-duty military force is more racially diverse than the male force. Nearly one-third (31%) of active-duty women are black compared with only 16% of men, with active-duty women less likely to be white than active-duty men (53% vs. 71%) (Patten and Parker 2011).

The film starts out strong in its portrayal of multiple types of women in the film, in terms of race. Is this portrayal of a diverse military maintained? This is an important question to address because, without significant attention to African-American women in the military, violence perpetrated against women of color is likely to be obscured, a common practice in US culture—a point we discuss in the Focal Point of Chapter 9. As you view the film, assess in what ways white womanhood is highlighted as worthy of defense and protection and ways in which women of color are excluded from such protections. To what extent does the film address how intersections of gender and race affect patterns of rape and sexual violence?

2      Why do rape and sexual violence happen in the military?

With any social problem or issue, it is important to address the relationship between individual behavior and the circumstances within which the behavior occurs. Hierarchal organizations produce higher rates of violence—sexual, physical and psychological—against women and men within them and against women and men outside them. At the heart of these hierarchies is a commitment to very rigid notions of masculine authority. Thus, fraternities, male team-sports athletes and the military produce far higher rates of sexual violence than what is found in the population as a whole. Additionally, social science research has found that aside from more traditional views toward gender relations, rapists are not psychologically different from men who don’t rape. 

As you watch the film, consider how the hierarchy of the military is addressed in placing rape and sexual violence in a broader context. To what extent does the film look at the culture and structure of the military and how it deals with rapists? To what extent does the film focus on “bad” men who are psychologically deviant? In which ways does the film cultivate a “predator” approach to rape/sexual violence in the military? To what extent is the focus on serial rapists in the military, their self-selection into the military and their taking advantage of vulnerable women? To what extent is the issue of men’s sexual violence against women (and men) presented as a product of individual flaws embodied in the predator model and to what extent does it draw out the collective means through which sexual violence is produced? Consider the extent to which the film challenges the myth we analyzed in the focal point in Chapter 9 Interpersonal Violence: Are rapists depraved strangers?

3      How does the film link violence against women and other forms of violence central to the military? 

The preparation for and carrying out of war-making upon people across the globe produces—perhaps requires—tremendous levels of violence upon individuals in the military with deleterious effects, only one of which is the havoc wreaked upon female service members. Hardly a week goes by when there is not a news piece exploring the astronomical rates of suicide among, or domestic violence by, military veterans. There are also many ways through which service members commit acts of violence, often in sexualized ways, against “enemy combatants” and civilians. To what extent does the film connect violence against women in the military to women who are not in the military but who are near or on military bases or in nearby communities, or the violence visited on “enemies,” including civilians? All of these forms of violence are linked to the masculinized structural hierarchies and culture of the military. Consider how Kaufman’s analysis of the triad of men’s violence, discussed in Chapter 9 Interpersonal Violence, might help make these connections. Our understanding of next steps to reduce violence will be stronger, if we make those connections.

Framing the issue of sexual violence as one of predatory “bad men” serves to distance the problem—and ourselves—from the more fundamental issues at hand, which would require challenging militaristic logic and practices that characterize not only the military, but also our entire culture. After viewing the film, think about ways that you can place rape and sexual assault in the military within the context of the US military and US culture. Think about what changes can be made to reduce violence against women in the military, women near military bases, women in the US and women globally.


For further reading on the links between masculinized culture and sexualized violence, as well as strategies for reducing violence, see the following online resources:

Men Can Stop Rape mencanstoprape.org/

Men Stopping Violence menstoppingviolence.org/

White Ribbon Campaign whiteribbon.ca/


Patten, Eileen and Kim Parker. 2011. “Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile.” PEW Social and Demographic Trends. Web. Retrieved January 20, 2013 http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2011/12/women-in-the-military.pdf