On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to discuss sexual assault in the military. There, John McCain made a statement that I first caught wind of on Twitter. There, Ms. Foundation, Emily’s List, Jessica Valenti, and more — all groups and figures I admire and respect — said McCain was telling women to stop enlisting until the issue of sexual assault in the armed forces was solved. I got angry. But after I saw what he actually said, I found myself more frustrated with my favored media outlets than I was with McCain himself.
This is exactly what he said: "Just last night, a woman came to me and said her daughter wanted to join the military and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so. I could not. I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We've been talking about the issue for years and talking isn't sufficient."
John McCain is an old and experienced political figure. Because of how much influence he has over our armed forces, any statement he makes regarding them should be closely examined. Obviously the solution to the problem of sexual assault in the military is not to keep women out; it is much harder and more complicated than that, and excluding women would be foolish and counterproductive. His comment implied that that might be the answer, and if he really believes that, he’s wrong.
No one asked McCain whether he thought women should be in the military. A mother asked McCain whether he could fully support her daughter's entrance into the military. He said no. And frankly, I think many parents would have said the same thing.
The military's sexual assault problem is enormous, as McCain himself points out. The Defense Department estimated that in 2012 alone, more than 26,000 men and women in the armed forces experienced "unwanted sexual contact." Documentaries like The Invisible War are painful to watch. So I can understand why parents might be less than thrilled to send their daughter into a profession which not only asks her to sacrifice her life for her country but also ignores her pain if and when she is raped by a colleague. (McCain himself, by the way, has three daughters.)
Of course the military is not the only place where rape is prevalent. There are lots of groups and places in which rape is a constant and present threat. The Peace Corps, college, study abroad. We don't try to keep our daughters from their hopes and dreams by scaring them with the threat of rape. Nor should we. But I can understand the desire to.
That’s why I believe the media coverage of McCain’s quote unfairly extrapolated what he really said. I normally trust the men and women from whom I get my news to have a fair, if slanted, point of view, but this time, I think they're fighting a straw man. I think that what McCain was answering when he said he could not give his "unconditional support" was not a question about whether women should be involved in military service but one about whether a mother should be comfortable with her daughter entering a very dangerous arena. I think that in the midst of a political hearing, for better or for worse, he was not answering as a politician, but as a father. And while I'm no McCain fan myself, I think we should back off a little on this one and stop putting words in his mouth.