Dr. Linda A. Fischer, a victim of sexual assault, shares her story so that others might know that they do not walk alone.
Dr. Linda Fischer is a writing advisor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. She is a U.S. Army veteran, retiring as a major after a successful military career of more than 20 years.
She is also among the one in six women in America who have been a victim of sexual assault, having been attacked by her supervising officer while in the army.
Dr. Fischer is now an exceptionally articulate, passionate advocate for victims of rape and sexual assault, and the author of Ultimate Power: Enemy Within the Ranks, which she wrote in part to give a voice to victims who could not speak for themselves.
Dr. Fischer graciously permitted CalSouthern to excerpt the first chapter, “Why Can’t I Say No.” She also sat down with university editor Tom Dellner for a discussion regarding the scope of this astoundingly pervasive crime, an analysis of the perpetrators and their behavior patterns, and a look at emerging educational programs that are showing promise to make a difference.
“Why Can’t I Say No?” an Excerpt from Ultimate Power: Enemy Within the Ranks
By Linda A. Fischer
The night air was unusually hot and humid, even for Panama City—steamy as a sauna. Inside the Non-Commissioned Officers’ Club, where I stood drinking my fourth beer, the temperature was a cool 65 degrees, but I felt as if the heat from outside had followed me in. I knew my light brown complexion was glowing with a hot redness, flushed from the alcohol I had consumed in the last hour. And under my battle fatigues, dampness soaked my body. Thank God my long hair was pinned up—the thick, wavy strands off my neck.
It was another Friday “hail and farewell” social, an opportunity for Lieutenant Colonel Harold Smith, my immediate superior, to bid goodbye to soldiers returning to the States and to welcome newcomers. He expected me to attend, like all the officers in his command. But, unlike the others, he expected me to stay close by his side whether I liked it or not, rather than mingle with the crowd. All evening I’d felt his pale blue eyes on me—just as they always seemed to be these days.
The beers I’d drunk this evening had done little to douse the angry fire within me—a fire kindled by the knowledge that my commander demanded and then monopolized every free moment I had. And I had no say about it.
When Lt. Col. Smith arrived in Panama in 1992, one year into my tour there, he and I began our relationship on respectful, friendly terms. Now, 18 months later, he treated me differently than he treated the other officers. He seemed to always want me nearby. Every day he would ask me to go running or play racquetball or come to his office for a chat even if he knew I had other obligations. He’d tell me to attend this affair or that event, and when I tried to beg off, saying I was swamped with paperwork or needed to take care of urgent details involving the unit I commanded, he would fire back some remark to remind me that he was the boss and that my fate in the Army rested with him.
“Yes, sir!” I’d learned to snap back in proper Army form. “What time, sir?”
Standing beside me in the dimness of the NCO Club, the slightly-built colonel seemed to tower over me. Not because of my 5 feet 2 inches or 120 pounds, but because in the shadow of his ultimate power and authority and the way he wielded it, I felt small and helpless. For some time now my normal confidence had been shriveling, my zest for life disappearing. This was a new and devastating experience for me.
For all of my 32 years, I’d seen myself strong like my beautiful Mexican mother and self-assured like my proud Texan father, a career military man. Growing up in a military family that moved constantly, I learned to take on bullies, even if they were bigger than me. Wherever we lived, I protected younger children, especially my little brothers, and never let anybody push them around.
Beginning in junior high, I’d grown intensely competitive, collecting awards and medals as an accomplished athlete. I was determined to succeed at everything I attempted and saw myself as an achiever, someone who could make it in life no matter what the obstacles. In fact, a teacher of mine had once admitted admiring me for never giving up on what I wanted.
What I wanted, I discovered after putting myself through college in three years, was a successful military career. And, at this time I had achieved much of the success I had hoped for. I was Captain Linda Fischer, an 11-year career officer, commander of a 220-soldier military police unit. On top of all that, I was diligently working on a master’s degree in educational psychology and had won numerous Army sporting championships.
Yes, the Army seemed the perfect place for me. Because of my background, I understood and could accept aspects of Army life that bothered some people—the chain of command, the code of absolute obedience to your commander. I thrived on the competitive life style, the challenge “to be all that I could be.”
Yet here I stood, feeling like my commander’s possession, like a little girl trying not to make her daddy mad. It was not a good feeling, and the beer helped keep it at bay. For months now, I’d tried not to inflame the situation, to keep my respectful distance while remaining professional and friendly. But Lt. Col. Smith persisted in focusing his attention on me at command social and sporting events. Although he knew my romantic feelings were reserved for Jim, back home in the States.
Recently, his demands had intensified, and I found myself feeling more and more powerless, unable to say no to him. When I did, he would fix me with a disapproving look as if he were dealing with a willful child and remind me that he held my future in his hands.
For the past few months, I’d felt increasingly on edge. Like I did tonight. I must have been on my fifth beer, although I’d never been much of a drinker before. In fact, while others downed alcoholic drinks, I could usually be found with a soft drink in my hands. But I’d learned recently that beer and rum and cokes had a dulling effect, and they had become my primary comfort during social times with the commander. Only for some reason, I wasn’t the one buying tonight, as I usually did. No, someone was stacking drinks in front of me faster than I could gulp them down.
Feeling like a dog on a leash, I swiped at the dampness trickling down the back of my neck. Did the other officers talk about what was—or wasn’t—going on between the commander and me, I wondered? I knew my former first sergeant, Master Sergeant Martinez, sensed my frustration and anger for he made sure to check in with me often at these gatherings. And what about Sandy, Lt. Col. Smith’s wife? I suspected that she hadn’t picked up on her husband’s strange behavior because he seemed more cautious in her presence. She often attended “hail and farewell” socials, but where was she tonight?
I sipped a beer, my mind whirling with endless threats I could only imagine hurling at the man I’d come to see as my tormentor. My thoughts jumped from strategizing an excuse for leaving to buzzing with a light alcohol-induced dizziness. All I wanted to do was escape from the party.
Why can’t I just say, “Sir, I’ll be going now”? Why can’t I just say it? I asked myself those questions as I sipped at yet another beer that had been plopped down in front of me. And I had no answers. All I had was the anger that I felt welling in me like a volcano—the anger that arose from feeling trapped between my attempts to placate my boss and protect my career and this strange paralysis. With no way to release my anger, at least around him and my troops, all I could do was run the anger out of me every night, with a fast paced 5 mile run before going home.
But I couldn’t run now. I had to stay at his side while old, familiar arguments raged inside me. I can’t take this anymore. Yes, you can, Linda. Just go along with him. You’ve got 11 years under your belt now. Why jeopardize your whole career at this point? After all, you’ve only got six more months until you can leave Panama and the commander far behind. Your next tour of duty is bound to be better, and then you’ll have just nine years until you can retire from the Army with a retirement pension and a whole 'nother life to live. Don’t throw it all away now. You’ve achieved great success so far, and besides, you’ve set your sights on making major. So just stay cool!
“Right, Captain?” Lt. Col. Smith’s voice captured my attention.
“Captain, you’d better slow down. I’d hate to see you hangin’ over the side of the boat tomorrow chuckin’ all day instead of snaggin’ a big one.”
Laughter from the other officers rocked me sober enough to clear some of the buzz from my head. The fishing trip tomorrow. I had forgotten.
“The commander’s right, ma’am.” Master Sgt. Martinez whispered, gently nudging my arm. “With all due respect, ma’am, you’ve been acting like a zombie, and that’s your, what…fifth or sixth beer? You better get yourself home.”
“I’m just waiting for the right moment, know what I mean?” I gave a subtle nod towards the colonel. “Say soldier, it’s almost 9:00. Shouldn’t you be going? Aren’t your kids waiting up for you? You should get going.”
“Not a problem, ma’am.” The worried look on Martinez’ face was all too familiar these days. “But, ma’am, promise me you’ll get going soon.”
“Promise,” I chimed.
Still doubtful, the tall, muscular sergeant turned to leave, but halted. “You sure I shouldn’t wait and drive you?”
“I’ll be okay, so outta here!” I whispered. “You’re a good man, sergeant. You and the family have a good weekend, you hear?”
By the time the party started breaking up, I was cradling a fresh beer in my hands, not drinking much anymore but needing to hold on to something while I waited for the commander to finish his goodbyes. He’d dismissed his driver earlier and asked me to take him home. There goes my run, I’d thought to myself as I parroted the obligatory, “No problem, sir.” Why can’t I just say no? It wasn’t unusual for one of his officers to give him a ride, but I did wish he’d asked one of the others. I desperately wanted this night to be over.
Continuing to nurse my beer, I hoped the buzz in my head would subside before I got behind the wheel of my little white Chevy. I tried to reassure myself. At least he lives on base, not far from here. With so little traffic at this time of night, I can get him home in a few minutes and be back at my place in no time at all. I wasn’t thinking about playing it safe. All I wanted was to get the colonel home fast and out of my sight. Tomorrow’s fishing trip would come much too soon for me.
You can order a copy of Ultimate Power: Enemy Within the Ranks at Amazon.com
A Conversation With Dr. Linda A. Fischer
CalSouthern: Can you give us a sense of the scope of the problem of sexual assault in the U.S.?
Dr. Fischer: Research shows that, in the general public, about one in six women have been a victim of sexual assault. On college campuses, that frequency increases to something close to one in five. So the numbers are extremely high. One wonders where the social outrage is in light of numbers like that. Imagine the outcry there would be if one out of six cars were stolen or one of six homes were burglarized—it would be pandemonium.
CalSouthern: What do we know about the perpetrators?
Dr. Fischer: Not surprisingly, the vast majority of perpetrators are men. Ninety-nine percent of female victims are raped by men; eighty-five percent of male victims are raped by men. Eighty-four percent of victims know the perpetrators.
These tend not to be the random crimes that are depicted on television, where a masked man jumps out from behind the bushes and sexually assaults a woman. Most are a date rape, or involve an associate from the workplace, an extended family member, or even a nuclear family member.
CalSouthern: What else do we know about the perpetrators? Do they tend to share any other characteristics?
Dr. Fischer: Today we know far more about perpetrators than we did a generation ago—or even just five or 10 years ago. It just wasn’t studied to the extent it is today. Grants and technology have made it possible to do more and better research in these areas and have given us access to more populations.
The perpetrators make up only about eight percent of the male population. It’s a somewhat small number—given the scope of the problem—that reflects the number of repeat offenders. In fact, 63 percent are repeat offenders. They will continue to commit these crimes until they are caught. And because we do such a bad job of prosecuting these cases, they’re often able to commit assault after assault after assault. With auto theft, robbery, and other crimes that are easier to prosecute, you see much less of that repeat offender behavior; they are incarcerated much more quickly.
This eight percent of the male population is widely and fairly evenly dispersed among groups. Using the college campus as an example, you wouldn’t find them concentrated among athletes and fraternity members, contrary to the common stereotype. You would find them among the engineering school, the medical school, those interested in the arts and humanities—you’d find them among all walks of life.
They also tend to be hyper-masculine. They may speak of women—all women, even family members—in a derogatory manner. Research also indicates that they engage in sexual activity at a much higher frequency that than most. For example, if a survey indicates that a certain population of men have sex an average of two times per month, these hyper-masculine perpetrators will report a much higher frequency of sexual contact, say twice per week.
CalSouthern: What patterns of behavior do they display when committing these crimes?
Dr. Fischer: These men prey on the social networks in which they blend in. They look like everyone else. They often attend social events, using drugs or alcohol to subdue women before isolating them from the rest of the group (80 percent use drugs or alcohol to impair their victims). They may often assume the role of the protector in doing so: “You’ve had too much to drink, let me drive you home. Let me take care of you.” And since they tend to be someone the victim has seen before, or at least look like everyone else from the group, no red flags go up.
The men who perpetrate these crimes tend to use just enough force to complete the rape. They rarely cut their victims or beat them badly so that they leave a lot of marks or physical evidence. That way they can later claim it was consensual. So they’ll use, for example, an arm bar to the throat to cut off the victim’s air supply and gain control that way.
CalSouthern: What percentage of these crimes is reported?
Dr. Fischer: Only about 10 percent are reported and, of these, just a very small percentage is adjudicated.
CalSouthern: Why is this? Is it still a matter of stigma?
Dr. Fischer: As I mentioned, many of these crimes have alcohol or drugs involved, and people associate drinking with irresponsibility and question why the woman put herself into the position where the assault occurred. Or people assume she didn’t say no or sent some sort of mixed message to the perpetrator. Or maybe victims have seen cases on television where the accuser is further victimized by the system during the trial.
Also, in essence, we’re asking women who are in shock to make the extremely difficult decision to immediately report the crime to give the authorities the best opportunity to successfully prosecute it. They’ve just been violated. They may have been subjected to violence or physical abuse. They don’t want people to know they’ve been violated. It’s human nature.
And very often, they are given bad advice by friends with whom they share the information. The friends don’t say, “You need to report this right now. Don’t take a shower. Let’s go straight to the police station. This is not optional.” Instead, they will actually discourage the victims from saying anything.
Finally, as noted above, the victims often know the person who committed the crime. And sometimes, the people they might report the crime to—perhaps in the workplace or the military—knows the perpetrator, as well. Then it becomes a matter of whether the person in a position of authority will believe the report; often, they don’t want to think that someone that they know is capable of doing something like that.
So there are a number of stigmas and other factors at work. In my experience, the stigma associated with drinking is often the most common.
CalSouthern: If the legal system is not proving to be effective in dealing with these crimes, are there any alternative solutions that are emerging that might help combat this problem?
Dr. Fischer: Recently, we’ve seen something of a shift. Historically, dealing with the problem of sexual assault has rested on the shoulders of women: what are women going to do to protect themselves? But who are committing these crimes? Men. In my opinion, it doesn’t really help matters much to have women talk to other women about sexual assault when it is men who are committing the crimes. Men are more likely to listen to—and take seriously—other men regarding these sorts of sensitive topics; current research supports this.
A new type of response has emerged, called bystander training. Men are taught how to recognize red flags in certain social situations and how to respond properly. It’s a matter of being sensitive to what’s happening around you so you can recognize when someone could be at risk, and then intervening in a way that keeps the situation from escalating.
For example, say a group of men and women go out for pizza. A man comes over—someone you’ve seen before, someone that you’re aware of, but who isn’t a part of the group—and inserts himself into group, buying drinks for the women. Then he mentions that he would be happy to drop one of the women off at her home, that he lives nearby. A man who has been exposed to bystander training would recognize the potential danger presented by this scenario and say, “You know, we’ve all decided we want to hang out together tonight and we’ll make sure she gets home. But if she wants to go out with you another time, I’m sure she’ll be in touch.”
Or maybe someone sits down next to a woman in the group and, after a while, puts his hand on her knee. A man who notices this might speak up and say, “Maria, come sit by me for a little while…I haven’t had the chance to talk with you tonight.” This simple act puts the bystander between the woman and the potential assailant and subtly lets him know—without escalating the matter or creating tension—that the bystander is aware and watching him.
CalSouthern: Is this type of training gaining traction?
Dr. Fischer: Yes, we’re seeing more and more of it. At USC, where I work, we’ve implemented a program called “Men Care” that utilizes this bystander approach, and similar programs are being put in place on college campuses and in high schools around the country.
I am extremely confident that men want to—and would—react in the right way. It’s just a matter of discussing scenarios and providing them with a set of tools to diffuse potentially dangerous situations.
CalSouthern: How pervasive is the problem in the military community?
Dr. Fischer: Research shows that the incidence of sexual assault is measurably higher in the military than in the private sector. A survey from 2009 focusing on the air force found that one in three woman reported being victims of sexual assault, which is an extremely high number.
CalSouthern: What are some of the reasons for extent of the problem in the military?
Dr. Fischer: In my opinion, the male-dominated command structure is a contributing factor, as is the sheer number of rotations or deployments units are facing—leadership is so focused on the mission that other issues such as this are pushed to the side.
Also, if there’s a high tolerance for sexual harassment, you’ll see a corresponding high rate of sexual assault in that environment. So how the leadership responds to incidents of sexual harassment is extremely important. Military leaders effectively trained will make better decisions regarding how they articulate where they stand on these issues. They can really set the tone for their unit, either positively or negatively.
CalSouthern: Are we making progress on these issues? Are you optimistic for the future?
Dr. Fischer: In the military as well as in our communities, I think we’re seeing the level of awareness increasing, and leaders are starting to turn to the research to learn how to respond to the problem. Regarding the military, I truly believe that leadership wants to make a difference, although they might not yet know how. So it’s our responsibility to go to them and inform them on how they can make better choices.
In the private sector, the most positive development we’re seeing is a recognition that the solution to this problem does not rest with women. It’s a community responsibility and everyone has a role to play in making a difference. With this shift, it’s my hope that we’ll begin to see the numbers that I referred to earlier decrease.
And I think you have to be optimistic. Look back to other social issues that we’ve struggled with. Take teenage pregnancy, for example. Twenty years ago, it was a huge problem. But a number of large-scale educational campaigns were introduced and the numbers have dropped significantly.
It’s a matter of the community getting behind the issue, not assigning blame, but rather informing people on how to better approach the problem.
CalSouthern: You were the victim of a sexual assault and chose to write a book on the topic. How were you able to take such a positive, courageous course, and what can others take from your journey?
Dr. Fischer: I wrote the book because I didn’t have a sense of justice from the system. There was no court martial. Not even an apology. By writing the book, at least I was able to tell my story—and I encourage others to do the same—so that those women who are suffering in silence know that they do not walk alone.