The Invisible War: Jennifer Siebel Newsom Helps Expose Rape in U.S. Military

Scott Lucas | January 15, 2013 | Story Politics

Jennifer Siebel Newson, the wife of Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, may have started her career in front of the camera, but she has had a much greater impact behind it. Over the past few years, she’s been director or executive producer of documentaries that she describes as part films and part “social justice activism.”

One of her recent projects, The Invisible War (directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering), about the culture of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military, was just nominated for an Academy Award. We talked to Siebel Newsom about the film’s brutal subject and about the impact that it is already having.

SFMAG: According to the film, there were over three thousand reports of sexual assault in 2010 within the United States military, yet only 175 convictions that led to jail time. Were you surprised when you came into the project at just how epidemic the problem is?

JSN: Absolutely. I think that in the past, the Pentagon had created a structure that, far from reprimanding sexual violence, in fact encouraged it. One recent study found that 15 percent of all service members had committed some kind of sexual assault prior to joining the military, so they’re not screening recruits well enough. While there have been a smattering of news accounts over the past few decades, the media for the most part has portrayed this issue as anomalous and rare. But according to DOD statistics, 50 service members are raped daily on U.S. soil. Our own service members are more likely to be raped than killed in combat. That’s outrageous and unconscionable. Rape should not be an occupational hazard.

SFMAG: What impact has the film had since it’s been out?

JSN: There’s already been a change in the way these investigations are handled. In the past, if a sexual assault occurred, the victim would have to report it to her or his direct superior. But two days after watching our film last spring, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta assigned that role to someone at the level of colonel or Navy captain. This step helps to ensure more accountability. In mid-July a military instructor at Lackland Air Force Base was sentenced to an unprecedented 20 years for sexual misconduct. And in January of this year, President Obama signed a significant piece of legislation that established a comprehensive special victims unit and mandated a military-wide survey to collect data on sexual assault. We believe none of this would have transpired if it hadn’t been for the film’s success.

SFMAG: You recently directed the documentary Miss Representation, about femininity. Your current project, slated to come out in early 2014, is about masculinity. How do questions about gender roles figure in to the issue of military rape?

JSN: We’ve been teaching our boys from birth that to be a man is to be in power and control and to stifle empathy. Some of our most powerful cultural institutions—video games, pornography, and superhero Hollywood movies—teach young men that the masculine norm is to be aggressive and dominant, and that their sexuality should be based on violence, not intimacy. It’s a confusing, unhealthy, and dangerous culture.

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