Vantages and Vulnerability

J. G. Miller* | Contributor

At the time of the assaults that are described in this article, I was an active duty member of the U.S. Navy, and physically a man. I have since transferred into the U.S. Navy Reserves, and have transitioned to female. The real life story that I tell in this article, is about how my transition caused me to understand that I had been assaulted, and explores why I repressed/misconstrued those sexual-assaults before transitioning.   

About a year into our boat’s major engineering overhaul, my division discovered that I was ticklish. When tickled I could not control my motor movements.  I was helpless.  I could not fight back, and I could not help but manically laugh.  A second-class petty officer in my division, my superior, decided to tickle me until I collapsed to the floor.  I tried to fight back, but my other division members restrained me by holding me down. The second-class placed all his weight on my body, pinned my hands to the deck plate, and grinded against my lower-back, humping me repeatedly. I had no power, no control. Our division just laughed. When it repeatedly happened again, I viewed it as normal, but I was bothered, and I fought back. I never participated in similar dehumanizing acts, but I did not view what happened to me as sexual assault. Ultimately, I repressed the assault, and would not remember what happened for several years.    

In my experience, while on active duty, it was normal for sailors who were on their first contract and had ascended to positions of authority in their divisions to behave in dehumanizing ways towards more junior personnel. The Navy officially prohibits hazing. More senior personnel such as fleet returnees, chiefs, and officers generally did not condone or participate in anything that could be considered hazing. However, when more junior personnel did engage in hazing, it tended to be willfully ignored by the higher-ups.

Victims of hazing did not dare ‘rat out’ the perpetrators, since they often depended on the very people who hazed or harmed them to continue their qualifications, and to enable their success as sailors. Amongst most people I knew, it was generally understood that hazing was something you had to endure during your first year or two. Their rationale seemed to be that it was at least survivable, and at best it made them a more resilient person. Even as I rose through the ranks, I vehemently opposed such flawed logic. I did not see any benefit from the way I was treated, and the mere fact that I persevered did not somehow make me a better sailor.  Instead it made me defensive, scared to make mistakes, and consequently hyper-stressed.

Hazing can quickly escalate to something more serious, such as physical harm, and in my case sexual assaults. In my case, I was a ‘man’ at the time, so when I was assaulted I did not interpret it that way. It was not for a lack of training by the Navy that I repressed or misconstrued the assaults; to the contrary, the Navy requires annual training on sexual assault. Instead, my inability to recognize the experience for what it was stems from our masculinist culture: I had internalized that male-on-male behavior, even with sexual undertones, cannot be sexual in nature, and therefore could not escalate to assault, particularly if it were a joke.

I left active duty a few years after this for reasons unrelated to the assaults. Roughly a year after I left active duty service, the military signaled that they were going to open service to transgender service members. Following this announcement, I began my transition from male to female. Today, I am socially a woman. Regarding how our culture views bodies, mine is now more female than male. I am viewed as a woman by the public, and today share in the many vulnerabilities faced by women. My new position in society is what allowed me to eventually recognize my experiences as what they were: aggressive acts of asserting dominance via physical assault with undoubtedly sexual undertones. Ultimately it took a fundamental change in my place in society and a new relationship to vulnerability to begin to understand what had occurred.

* Due to the author’s continued involvement in the military and to the Navy’s policy of mandatory reporting for sexual assault, this article is written under a pseudonym.