A link to the story: http://www.gq.com/long-form/male-military-rape

My Proof: https://twitter.com/GQMagazine/status/515464300623044608 https://twitter.com/natepenn/status/515510885914509312

Thank you for all of the thoughtful and informed comments and questions. Sorry I couldn't answer more of your questions today, but I'll try to get to as many of them as possible over the next few days. I really appreciate your giving your attention to this story and the subject of sexual assault.--N

Comments: 1000 • Responses: 38  • Date: 

TheExpandingMind492 karma

I'd like to say that "The blood was a blessing because it at least lubricated the broomstick" is maybe the only sentence I have ever read that made me want to throw up and cry in anger.

Thank you for writing this article, and thank you for spending the time that you did focusing on the failings of the VA in these (and many other) matters.

Excellently done 11/10 will follow your work in the future.

Oh and because the auto-mod isn't okay with me just congratulating you on your work and I HAVE to ask you a question:

Taking into account already that the entire thing is pretty messed up to begin with, in your personal opinion what is the most horrifying detail about an attack that you can remember off of the top of your head?

NathanielPenn254 karma

You just named it.

Thanks for this.

crash__bandicoot58 karma

Woah. I'm going out to buy a copy right now. I'm not even joking. That's shocking to say the least.

As a practicing writer, I aspire to be able to write something so beautiful, yet ultimately disturbing, about such a travesty. I hope your career continues to serve you well.

NathanielPenn50 karma

Thank you for this.

Frajer323 karma

why do you think sexual assault is so prevalent in the military ?

NathanielPenn607 karma

In an environment that limits personal freedom, abuses of power are more likely, I think. Senior personnel have fewer checks on their authority. If an recruit finds the conditions humiliating, he may be tempted, because it can make him feel more powerful, to visit that same humiliation on a peer. Finally, because the culture so discourages the reporting of sexual assault, perpetrators have a pretty good idea that they're going to get away with it.

JohnJannuzzi242 karma

How did you go about finding the survivors? Were they open to sharing their stories or did it take convincing?

NathanielPenn384 karma

This was the aspect of the story that worried me the most when I began working on it. No journalists had ever attempted to speak with as many survivors as my editor and I were hoping to speak with, and most of the articles on the subject featured the same handful of outspoken men. I wasn't sure any other men would be as brave as those men--people like Brian Lewis, Heath Phillips, and Trent Smith--had been.

I made inquiries with various not-for-profits that work with sexual assault and military sexual assault survivors. Those organizations were extremely helpful in putting me in touch with men who were willing to speak with me; the organizations were thrilled that GQ was covering this issue. Some of those men in turn put me in touch with other men. One clinician I spoke with was generous and trusting enough to let some of her clients know about the story; a number of them got in touch with me. A couple of men decided at the last minute that they weren't ready to talk about their experiences.

I also posted announcements about the story on several websites for military veterans. People cheered me on, but as far as I'm aware, nobody I spoke with came to me via one of those announcements.

I was warned repeatedly that all of the survivors had good days and bad, and that I should be prepared for at least a few difficult or confused or unusable interviews. Except in one case, that didn't happen. The men were amazingly and movingly determined to tell me their stories.

BizzyBizzyB177 karma

Were the issues often reoccurring for the victims?

NathanielPenn331 karma

Yes, in a number of cases men were victimized repeatedly by different people at different times. Even more than the survivors of single assaults, these men were plagued by the feeling that something about them, something they weren't in control of, was announcing itself to predators. They suffered tremendous anxiety about their sexual orientation. They came to feel that they existed, as one man told me, to be used by other people.

The issues could be recurring in another sense as well: As I mentioned in responding to TheLiberalMedia0's question, above, a number of the men had been sexually molested as kids.

ishywho47 karma

How are these men fairing now? I can only hope they are getting therapy and support but fear they aren't and it is such a hard uphill emotional battle I've seen female friends struggle with.

h4ck3r2012158 karma


This made me shit brix

Checkers10160135 karma

The Military as a whole, is much like the HR department in a company. They are not there to protect the employees, they are there to protect the organization.

What's more beneficial to a company, saying "Yes there is a rapist in our company, but we've handled it" or saying absolutely nothing, firing the accuser, and hiding it all?

I'm in the Military, and have a lot of friends in the military. I also dated a girl who later went on to join the military. And was discharged when she brought up sexual assault charges against someone.

h4ck3r201222 karma

I'm in the Military, and have a lot of friends in the military. I also dated a girl who later went on to join the military. And was discharged when she brought up sexual assault charges against someone.

Waoh, that's sad. If perps are punished regularly, they will definitely reduce. but like you said, everyone is busy playing saint.

NathanielPenn17 karma

I think you're right: If the system can be overhauled so that the guilty are punished most of the time, the number of assaults will go down. The comparison a lot of people make to the penal system is telling: How many men who rape other men in prison are ever punished?

NathanielPenn18 karma

The men in the piece who talk about where they are in their lives are pretty representative. For the most part they're in treatment of one kind or another; for the most part they're in recovery from substance-abuse problems; for the most part they're feeling hopeful about their lives. I don't think they could have handled revisiting their assaults with me if they weren't doing pretty well. I was moved by how resilient they are.

go-fuck-yourself_149 karma

I was going to make a throwaway account for this...

I am a male victim. And I been struggling with it since it happpened. I was a victim to assualt and beatings everyday. I was terrified to talk because I was getting threats. I questioned my self and my sexuality. I tried to kill my self three times in hope of just ending it all. I turned to drinking and still struggled. I just got out of the hospital and saw this is Thank you..

How did you get these guys to talk ?

Because I know how diffuclt it is to open up. But I just recently reported mine. And still havent talked to anybody. I am ashamed to even call my VA and look for it.

NathanielPenn132 karma

Thank you for sharing your story. Virtually every survivor I spoke with described trying to deal with MST in the same ways you did. They'd attempted suicide, they'd gotten addicted to drugs, they'd abused alcohol. There are much, much better ways--safer, healthier, long lasting. If you're uncomfortable about calling your VA and asking for MST treatment, maybe you'd prefer to get in touch with one of these organizations?


The good news is that the PTSD symptoms you're dealing with are highly treatable, far more so than you probably believe. The hardest part, as I think you already understand, is telling someone what happened. But you've just told me. That's meaningful and important. It means that you're able to talk about this with another person. A phone conversation with someone who can help you can be only slightly less anonymous than using a throwaway account on Reddit.

One other thing: The men I spoke with have had mixed experiences with the various kinds of treatment they've had--residential, outpatient, one-on-one treatment, drug therapy, and so forth. But they agreed overwhelmingly that group therapy could be profoundly important. For years they'd thought this hadn't happened to anyone else, that no one else was struggling with this, that the burden of it was theirs to bear alone... and then they showed up for their first day of group to find a dozen other men who'd gone through exactly what they'd gone through. The men told me that this discovery all by itself was so helpful to them--that the sense they found in group therapy of solidarity and community was valuable and comforting.

TheLiberalMedia0138 karma

Aside from the emotional damage to each of them. What is a general common trend that you discovered and surprised you?

NathanielPenn304 karma

I was pretty surprised to find that--as the clinicians I spoke with told me--the likelihood of being sexually assaulted as an adult is significantly higher if you've been sexually assaulted as a child. (The number of servicemen who fit that description is significant: In a 2001 study of Navy recruits, 12% reported they'd been molested before age 14.) The thought here is that the sense of not being in charge of your own body can persist into adulthood and may flourish in an environment in which you're stripped of power. The clinicians also talked in a less scientific way about the eerie and awful ability of sexual predators to identify men or women who've had previous experiences of sexual assault and molestation.

channelchuck119 karma

What initially inspired/led you to this story?

NathanielPenn253 karma

Last year I reported a GQ story on the end of the combat-exclusion policy--the rule that had forbidden the deployment of women into combat situations. As it turned out, many, many women were in fact fighting on the front lines, and with distinction. But many had experienced harassment and assault. During the course of the reporting of the piece, I read the SAPRO report--the Pentagon's annual report on sexual-assault statistics in the military--and saw the figures for sexual assault by gender. I was shocked to read that assaults against men were higher than those against women. My editor was equally shocked and felt that we should investigate. We both wanted to know not just how this could happen but why.

exubereft33 karma

Higher by number or percentage?

MikeVik0954 karma

Either way that would be higher by number. There are more men in the military than women.

exubereft61 karma

Or, right--I meant proportionally/relatively. But the article (which I should have read first) answers my question: "The moment a man enlists in the United States armed forces, his chances of being sexually assaulted increase by a factor of ten. Women, of course, are much more likely to be victims of military sexual trauma (MST), but far fewer of them enlist."

elusiveoddity47 karma


exubereft23 karma

Yikes :-s

Just to clarify, while A LOT of men have been sexually assaulted in the military, if you are a woman in the military you are MORE LIKELY to be sexually assaulted. That is the difference. Still, in terms of raw numbers, adding women to the force probably didn't raise the average number of assaults that much (being as there are far fewer women who sign up).

With all the mental health clearances that enlisters have to go through to be accepted in the military, why don't they include testing for inclinations towards being a sexual predator and exclude such people? (Not that I think any such test would be completely fair, but neither is all the other mental health tests that are applied.) Sure, being a sexual predator won't hurt your chances of being a good soldier in the field, but it can drastically lower the morale of your other soldiers, the good will of the country you are in (if friendly; or innocent citizens at least, if it's hostile terratory), and really, how can the person be trusted if they blatantly go against rules and laws for their "pleasure"?

It's like in companies today, who don't value the employee and reduce pay and benefits and increase work loads, etc. Morale sinks, the company sinks. If the military wants to be a proficient machine, cutting out predators is necessary. IMHO

NathanielPenn4 karma

You make excellent points, I think.

TheHumanBoy106 karma

What was the hardest part, emotionally/mentally, about reporting this story as a journalist/human?

NathanielPenn227 karma

The interviews were emotionally intense and exhausting, as you'd imagine, but the hardest part was returning to my family life after getting off the phone with a survivor. Frequently the interviews would end at dinnertime, and I would find myself sitting next to my kids, trying to listen to them talk about their days at school, while trying to deal with the feelings of horror and revulsion that the interviews had stirred up. I would feel helpless: This is the world my kids are growing up in. I don't know how to protect them from it.

I'm glad that combatting sexual assault--in the military, on college campuses (viz., the Obama administration's "It's On Us" campaign), and elsewhere--is increasingly a national priority.

freelollies95 karma

Were the victims ever made to be hush hush about the whole ordeal from the higher-ups? And if so would that have occurred if the victims were women?

NathanielPenn239 karma

Yes, the men I spoke with were told in many ways, direct and indirect, not to report. Frequently they were retaliated against. In one of the most appalling instances I heard, a man who tried to report being assaulted was sent to a military mental hospital and given psychotropic drugs and electroshock. A significant number of the men I spoke with were identified as unsolvable problems; consequently, they were diagnosed with personality disorders and forcibly discharged. The incentives not to report are considerable. Some men didn't report their assaults precisely because they were afraid of being retaliated against. And nearly all of them wanted to stay in the military, even after being assaulted. They correctly understood that a report would end their careers.

As far as whether this would have occurred if the victims were women, I can only speculate. The statistics show that the percentage of women who report being assaulted is slightly higher than that of men. That said, women also are much more likely to be sexually assaulted in the first place. The important distinction to be made here, I think, is that there's a treatment infrastructure in place for women. Anti-rape activists have done a fantastic job of creating organizations that support female survivors. That may make female survivors feel more hopeful--and less stigmatized-- about reporting an assault. The same work needs to be done for men.

tomrhod181 karma

Anti-rape activists have done a fantastic job of creating organizations that support female survivors. That may make female survivors feel more hopeful--and less stigmatized-- about reporting an assault. The same work needs to be done for men.

Hear hear. The lack of support for male survivors -- or of people even discussing the subject -- is disturbing and sad.

I help counsel men and women who have been the victims of sexual assault on a survivors forum, and the men almost always have the same story:

  1. No one cared.
  2. Often people (even "friends") said they should have enjoyed the experience (this was true for both assault by a man or a woman).
  3. There were no shelters within 100 miles (or more), nor support structures, to give them help.
  4. The police frequently didn't care or laughed at them.

It's so sad that these men have been left without help in a world that doesn't seem to care. So thank you so much for this article.

TheMomerathOutgrabe71 karma

Female survivor- had much the same experience. So yes the structures are in place, but that doesn't always make a difference in the moment, unfortunately. People told me I must have wanted/enjoyed it, cops were joking around and high fived while I was giving my statement, etc. Anyway, thank you so much for writing this article. Sexual assault is an epidemic, for men and women, and we need to be allies for each other. You did a great service by spreading the word.

NathanielPenn9 karma

Thank you for writing. It would be great if there were a model law enforcement entity that does a consistently good and sensitive job of handling sexual assaults. The military could emulate that model. Unfortunately, no such model seems to exist.

channelchuck95 karma

This may be unlikely but did you speak to any (hopefully convicted) MST perpetrators?

NathanielPenn134 karma

I tried; like you, I thought this might be a useful perspective for the story. I wanted to hear what a (presumably repentant) perpetrator might have to say about the circumstances--personal, environmental--in which he carried out a sexual assault. I put out numerous inquiries through my military law-enforcement contacts, but no one was willing to speak to me, not even pseudonymously.

GradSchoolROTCGuy72 karma

I've seen a number of redditors claim that if you control for all variables, the rate of sexual assaults in the military is approximately the same as for the corresponding American civilian population. So the argument goes that sexual assault in the military is an overblown story, and we should really just be talking about sexual assault amongst all young men and women aged 18-25. What are your thoughts?

NathanielPenn112 karma

This is an excellent question. I can only begin to answer it w/r/t to male-on-male sexual assaults. And it's still a difficult question to answer, because underreporting is so prevalent. For the story, we compared estimated assaults against males in the SAPRO report with those against males in civil society in the reports of the BoJ. We came up with an incidence of slightly above 1% in the military and .01% in the general population.

I understand that the CDC has a 2012 gen pop number that's fairly close to 1%; I also know that the VA has said that 1 in 100 men who seek any kind of treatment have experienced MST. Given that numerous men I spoke with didn't admit being assaulted even to the VA--that so many of them have kept their secret well into middle age--I'm inclined to think that this is an underestimate as well. As one clinician told me, sexual assault against men is the single most unreported crime in the military. You can't understate the degree to which men can't, won't, don't report it. It's worth noting that Secretary Panetta himself said he believes the SAPRO report underestimates the true numbers of sexual assaults in the military.

So I don't think sexual assault in the military is an overblown story. The bonds among men in the military are far closer than they are in civil society; if soldiers are turning on each other in this way, and in such significant numbers, it's an appalling problem. The fact that it's such a tenacious problem should be illuminating to us, though: Even in a tightly regulated environment, rape (like drug use, among other crimes) flourishes. What does that say about American society? Why is this problem so persistent? I'm not sure, but I think the military is a microcosm of that society, and that this is a vital question.

But I absolutely agree with you that military sexual assault should be considered a piece of the larger problem of rape against young adults. To this point, the extent of the problem in the military hasn't been understood, and that's why we did this story.

NathanielPenn68 karma

Thank you for all of the thoughtful and informed comments and questions. Sorry I couldn't answer more of your questions today, but I'll try to get to as many of them as possible over the next few days. I really appreciate your giving your attention to this story and the subject of sexual assault.--N

pole797959 karma

As a male survivor I'd just like to say thank you for this article. It brings to light just how often these assaults occur and increases awareness for those who need help.

NathanielPenn27 karma

This comment means a lot to me. Thank you for it.

NathanielPenn11 karma

Thank you. I'm really glad you think the article can be helpful. I hope it will be.

WassDogg30455 karma

Which branch of the military did you find sexual assault more prevalent in? And which branch had members that were more willing to discuss assault?

NathanielPenn42 karma

That's a really good question; I wanted to know the answer myself. My sample size isn't remotely significant enough to draw conclusions from, though.

diet_mountain_dew46 karma

Is the sexual abuse a factor in the high number of military suicides?

NathanielPenn46 karma

That's a good question. The subject of sexual assault in the military hasn't been studied nearly enough, so we don't know.

itsallsemantics44 karma

Wow, your piece is breath-taking. Could you give an update on how the movement for legislation to stop this is going?

NathanielPenn79 karma

Senator Gillibrand will reintroduce her bill this fall.

mrbeefy37 karma

What's the best advice you can give to someone wanting to offer support to a victim?

NathanielPenn68 karma

Men in particular don't want to talk about being sexually assaulted. It's an enormous and terrible impediment to their seeking help. My advice would be to encourage that survivor to contact one of the organizations cited here--


--to see what form of support might be best for him or her. The critical thing for him or her to know is that the PTSD associated with MST is highly treatable. I don't want to overstate this, because the quality of care at the VA can vary a great deal, but the sooner a man or woman gets support, the sooner his or her quality of life will improve.

sacrebleuser36 karma

I really appreciated the way you let the interviewees speak for themselves and relay their own experiences without too much commentary. I have my own suspicions, but can you tell us a bit about why you decided to write the piece in this way?

NathanielPenn43 karma

It was my editor's idea from the start. We've done a number of stories in this format; we both like it and feel comfortable with it. But in this case particularly, I think it was exactly right. For one, the stories are so grim that I think it's a kind of relief--for both the reader's eye and his/her heart--to be able to move so quickly from one to the next. Another thing: I'm not sure I could have told the men's stories as well as they tell them themselves. I did wonder at times how I might write the story as a narrative piece; I really struggled to imagine a tone and voice that would move rapidly and lightly through the material. I think the story might have been overwhelming to read in a straight narrative format.

Does that confirm your suspicions about why we took this approach? I'm curious to know.

tastystrudel27 karma

Besides the "I have power over you" motivation, did you find that the perpetrators did what they did because someone else did it to them as well? Something like "I've had this done to me, so I am doing it to you". Or was that not a differentiator at all in terms of who were the attackers?

And how higher up in the hierarchy were the attackers - much higher, just above the victims, or neither in particular? (I've never been in the military, but I assume that they wouldn't attack someone above them. Or is that an invalid assumption?)

NathanielPenn37 karma

In the case of recruits, I believe that the "I've had this done to me..." mentality was an important factor. Clinicians said as much to me.

The attackers of the men weren't always their superior officers--sometimes they were peers--but when they were, they were often just above the victims. They were in daily contact with them. That said, I should mention that in some cases (for instance, that of Steve Stovey, the man whose story opens the GQ piece) the men I spoke with don't know who their attackers were.

benjimann9122 karma

Were there any notable demographic correlations between the victims? You mentioned that many of them had been molested as children, but anything else like age, weight, race, or socio-economic status?

NathanielPenn48 karma

They were overwhelmingly in their teens and early 20s. Some were unusually small and slight (one described himself as looking like he was fifteen years old) but others were big, athletic guys. In gang rapes, a victim's size and strength are irrelevant, unfortunately.

navythrowaway201420 karma

Using a throwaway as friends/family know my username.

As a victim earlier this year of sexual assault by a civilian, how have most of the victims you interviewed handled their chain of command knowing and what was said of their circumstance?

After my assault, I confided in my Chief about what happened and he basically laughed in my face telling me to man up. I am a male and the person who assaulted me was a woman. It was one of the scariest/surrealest moments of my life. She threatened to beat herself and report to the cops that I had done it. After telling my Chief about how she wouldn't let me leave her home and forced herself upon me, with the way he reacted, I've only told my sister and my mom a little of what happened. He brings it up every fucking day and pokes fun at me for feeling shitty about it which just makes me even feel more shitty... I've taken to drinking every day to cope with being angry, but that only does so much.

NathanielPenn15 karma

I spoke with two men who'd had experiences like yours. (For reasons I explained elsewhere in this chat, they're not in the GQ story.) The scenarios they described are much like yours: an extraordinarily manipulative female perpetrator who forced them to do what she wanted by threatening to make it look as though she was the victim and not the assaulter; a chain of command that didn't understand what was so terrible about being raped by a woman.

One of the men talked about how unbearably frustrating the experience was--to know that he could physically overpower the woman who was doing this to him while being prevented from doing that by the psychological hold she had over him. He felt utterly helpless.

I'm so sorry that you've had to endure this. The GQ story includes some links to resources for people who might want to talk about what they've been through. Maybe this is something you'd be interested in doing?

Here are those links:


jstrydor18 karma

Hello! Thanks for doing this AMA and bringing this stuff out to the light! I've heard stories here and there of this stuff happening but I had no idea how much of a real problem it was! Do you have any ideas for possible long term solutions for all of this?

NathanielPenn44 karma

Protect Our Defenders is a great organization that lobbies in support of MST survivors. Their policy positions are a good start in answering your question: http://www.protectourdefenders.com/roadblocks-to-justice/

I do think that the chain-of-command question, which is the crux of the bill Senator Gillibrand will reintroduce this fall, is critical. The conventional wisdom is that there's a kind of old-boy network operating in the military in which commanders protect other senior officers. I think that's true in some cases. It seems to me as well that commanders shouldn't handle sexual-assault cases simply because they're so ill-equipped to do so. As I write in the GQ feature, a senior officer who hears a sexual-assault report will immediately feel a kind of culpability: This happened under his watch. At the same time, he's expected to demonstrate sensitivity for the person reporting the crime--this, in a military context that stigmatizes any show of weakness, not least the admission by a male soldier that he has been the victim of what society holds to be the most emasculating crime there is. So even if the commander himself isn't the perpetrator of the crime, he's inextricably involved in it. He has a vested interest in minimizing it. And the kind of training required to deal with this crime compassionately--to elicit a faithful and detailed report from a traumatized victim--is antithetical to all of his other training.

CMarlowe12 karma

Should Congress strip away the authority of the military to police itself on this matter and grant local and federal prosecutors to ability to swoop in and act where the military clearly won’t?

NathanielPenn21 karma

I don't know about granting authority to local and federal prosecutors, but I am in favor of establishing an independent civilian authority to oversee sexual-assault cases.

DontGiveaFuckistan10 karma

Did you find that those that were abused would then go and abuse another person?

NathanielPenn44 karma

No, emphatically. Clinicians told me repeatedly that this is a myth.

VideoCT7 karma

Were you ever threatened or strongly encouraged not to do this story?

NathanielPenn11 karma

No, fortunately.

EEfattie5 karma

Was female on male sexual assault higher or male on male? Was this surprising to you?

NathanielPenn16 karma

The latter. It wasn't surprising: There are far fewer women in the military than men.

tomrhod4 karma

Have you heard of MDMA-assisted therapy for veterans to treat PTSD related to surviving war and other types of trauma?

It has had really wonderful preliminary results with a small pilot study, and they are moving to larger groups now. Any members of the military that you are in contact with could benefit from it, so you might want to recommend they look into signing up for the study.

NathanielPenn4 karma

That's fascinating; I hadn't heard about it. Thanks for this link.

Diligence272 karma

Why do you think sexual assaults in the military get so much more press than the sexual assaults that pervade all of American society?

NathanielPenn3 karma

I'm not sure I agree with the premise of your question. We pursued this story precisely because we believed that military sexual assaults against men weren't getting sufficient attention.