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The Sex Lives and Sexual Frustrations of US troops in Iraq

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Well over a hundred thousand American men and women, most younger than 30, spend a year or more at a time in a foreign country where they are almost totally isolated from the indigenous population. Are all these troops really chaste for those long periods, as called for by military regulations?

What is going on sexually among US troops in Iraq is one of the great untold and unknown stories of the Iraqi occupation. As I have followed the course of this war, I have paid careful attention to any glimmers on information available. Having read perhaps 30,000-50,000 articles on Iraq, I've seen at most a couple dozen mentions of anything related to sex, other than the systematic sexual abuse and sometime rape of detainees at Abu Graib and the other US prisons. Of course, military regulations ban sex out of marriage, but these regulation have about as great a chance of being obeyed as the US has of obtaining the "total victory" that the President is always promising.

I have seen only a few references to soldiers having sex with prostitutes, but none that provide any sense of its prevalence. Given the large numbers of US troops in Iraq for year-long tours, one would assume that prostitution is fairly common, as has been the case in other US occupations such as those in Japan, Germany, South Korea, or Vietnam, yet data is lacking. In a brief conversation, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War said that prostitution was common, but gave no further details. Patrick Cockburn mentions in an article on the Green Zone, that prostitutes made regular visits to the zone, which even possessed at least one brothel. Interestingly, the women in the house were writing pro-Baath, antioccupation messages, which were unreadable by clients as they were in Arabic. The question of prostitution is especially important as occupations are known for leaving behind a multitude of women and girls whose service as prostitutes makes them unable to successfully reintegrate into their country once the occupation troops are gone. Given the fundamentalist turn of contemporary Iraq, the fate of prostitutes and their children could be bleak indeed.

Increasing suspicion that prostitution in certain areas might be fairly common is the fact that, among the US officials serving in the Coalition Provisional Authority, an active night life was quite common as was indicated in this account of CPA officials, reporters, and others living it up in the Green Zone, with a raucous bar scene and Iraqi hawkers making pornography available. The article does mention the sad fate of the lowly troops nearby who see this exciting life while being banned by regulations from even consuming alcohol.

Obviously, despite regulations, sex (and drinking) does occur between male and female troops, as Lynndie England's pregnancy by Charles Graner made clear. But, with women at about 15% of the armed forces, the male-female ratio is out of whack. Thus, interested female soldiers will have much greater opportunities to find similarly inclined male soldiers than the reverse. The situation also exposes the female troops to a serious threat of rape on many bases, a threat which has largely been ignored by the brass. Rape by American troops is also a danger for Iraqi women, but its prevalence is unclear. In addition to the trauma of the rape itself, these women victims are also at risk from other Iraqis as fundamentalist Islam becomes the dominant ideology there.

A new article [American soldier shoots Iraqi after sex] gives another tiny glimpse into this murky subject. Evidently a US soldier had sex with an Iraqi teen, became upset, possibly due to shame, and killed the teen. While I would in no way claim that this behavior is common, this is undoubtedly not the only instance of situational homosexuality by troops in Iraq, and probably not the only instance of such sex with an Iraqi. Given that US troops come disproportionately from conservative rural America, where the campaign against homosexuality has been a mainstay of churches for a long time, the shame that apparently led to the tragedy in this case may also occur in other instances.

We will never understand the whole story of the Iraq occupation until considerably more light is shed upon the daily lives of the US occupation troops. While about half of US troops are married, marriage often provides only modest consolation when faced with loneliness and sexual frustration during long periods in an alien land; marriage can, of course, increase the conflict experienced by those troops who do become sexually active. Sex is obviously occurring among these 130,000+ American young people brought up in a culture of "get mine," as is sexual frustration and conflict over sexual desires and behavior. As a psychoanalyst, I am well aware of the various ways people have of turning their heads away from realities that make them uncomfortable. Yet, even I am surprised by the massive denial of the sexuality obviously being expressed and repressed in a variety of ways among these troops plunked down in a land from which they are then kept isolated. This denial interferes both with a full accounting of the costs of the occupation to Iraqis, and to the occupation troops themselves.
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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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