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Last amended 
18 April 2017

Understanding Abuse

Physical or sexual abuse in the military can take on many different forms. It may be a single event such as a one off sexual assault, or include a series of assaults, threats or humiliation over an extended period. For example, a recruit could be selected for humiliating tasks and be physically or sexually assaulted on a number of occasions during his or her training as part of a bastardisation process.

Abuse doesn’t always involve direct physical or sexual assault:

  • Abuse can involve intimidation and control by the perpetrator(s), which can be ongoing and subtle in nature, and survivors are often “tuned in” to behaviours that may seem benign to others but are associated with potential harm for the survivor. For example, a survivor of sexual assault may be threatened and humiliated through text messages with seemingly innocuous flirtatious content sent by a perpetrator. A survivor of physical and emotional abuse can be kept silent and made to feel unworthy by being constantly singled out for criticism and disciplinary action. The use of intimidation and control can lead to difficulties disclosing the abuse to others. Threats and pressure for secrecy can also lead to long-standing fear and safety concerns for survivors, and can compound any distress or mental health issues caused by the abuse.

  • Abuse may also include being made to witness or participate in the abuse of others. Forcible participation or being made to witness the humiliation and sexual assault of a colleague can be very distressing and can lead in some instances to long-term mental health issues.

    The circumstances in which abuse occurs in the military vary, however it most commonly falls into one of two categories:

    Peer to peer abuse: In this form of abuse, both perpetrator and survivor are commonly in their 20s and junior in rank, and are usually acquaintances or co-workers. Alcohol is often a contributing factor in these situations. An example of this type of abuse was the 2011 Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) Skype incident when a cadet secretly filmed himself having sex with a female cadet and broadcast it via Skype to his colleagues.

    Systematic abuse:  Abuse can also be systemic and be either perpetrated or condoned by people in positions of authority, or in the case of the military, by people of higher rank. This form of abuse can happen in the context of bastardisation. For example, between 1960 and 1984 some recruits at HMAS Leeuwin were exposed to a culture of bullying and bastardisation that in some cases included rape, and other forms of sexual assault and abuse.

    Saying “no”: defining lack of consent in sexual assault

    Sexual assault happens when a person is forced, threatened or manipulated into sexual contact without his or her consent.

    Consent is affected by:

  • use or threat of force

  • other threats and forms of coercion (e.g. threat to career, threat to being isolated from others or singled out for humiliation)

  • incapacitation: Alcohol consumption or use of other drugs can render a person incapable of giving consent. Alcohol and drugs can be deliberately used as a way of targeting a potential victim and are often used by perpetrators to excuse their actions.

  • age: Although the age of consent in most states is now 16, the difference in age between perpetrator and survivor and the role the perpetrator has in the survivor’s life also has an impact on a young person’s ability to consent. If a person is significantly older than the young person (usually 5 years or more) or if they are in a position of trust or authority over the young person (e.g. an instructor, a doctor or commander), they will be in a position to manipulate, dominate or control the young person and therefore take away their consent.

  • It is important to understand that consent can be withdrawn at any time, and that previous sexual contact or consent does not mean continued consent. For example, an existing sexual relationship does not necessarily imply consent. A person can also consent to one form of sexual contact (e.g. kissing) but not another (e.g. intercourse).