Military rape: Saxby Chambliss, hormones and problems at the top

Women Marines train at Parris Island Image copyright Scott Olson

The Senate armed services committee is holding hearings on military sexual assault. But the BBC's Katty Kay wonders if the attitudes of those tasked with addressing the problem are actually making it worse.

Gee whiz, there's a hook-up culture in the US military, where hormones are running rampant and before you know it, these things happen. Sew together the comments of a couple of elderly white men in positions of power (the US Senate and the Pentagon) and that's the grossly misleading picture that emerges of sexual assault in the American armed forces.

US Senator Saxby Chambliss, the 69-year-old Republican from the US state of Georgia, is the latest person to utter absurdities about what is being correctly described as a "cancer in the US military".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Saxby Chambliss plans to retire in 2014

Here is what he said at the Senate armed services hearing today:

"The young folks who are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur."

I'm not sure what's more offensive, the boys-will-be-boys "gee whiz", or describing groping, rape and sexual assault as "these types of things", or the idea that somehow hormones make this inevitable.

Now I confess I don't have a hotline to the inner workings of Senator Chambliss' brain, and maybe he didn't mean to suggest that, but it certainly comes across that way.

We will wait to see if the senator apologises, which is what General Mark Welsh was forced to do after he suggested the "hook-up culture" of young Americans was to blame for the epidemic of assaults.

Here's what he said a few weeks ago: "So they come in from a society where this occurs. Some of it is the hook-up mentality of junior high, even, and high-school students now, which my children can tell you about from watching their friends and being frustrated by it. The same demographic group moves into the military. We have got to change the culture once they arrive. "

As others have pointed out, this is not just absurd. It is outrageous.

A hook-up is consensual; assault is not. It is a crime.

Which all illustrates how depressingly hard it will be to change the problem of rape and sexual assault in the military. If these kinds of comments reflect the attitudes of even some people at the top, no wonder young women feel they won't be listened to if they report instances of abuse. Because, gee whiz, these types of things are part of hormone-riddled life.