Skip to main content

Sexual Harassment in the Military

By Kathleen Giberd

While stationed in the Gulf, Army Specialist Suzanne Swift was sexually harassed repeatedly by fellow soldiers. One of her superiors forced her to engage in sex on threat of disciplinary action. After her return to the states, she was harassed by another superior who "ordered" her to report to his bed. When she complained to her command she was ostracized and harassed. Facing a second deployment to Iraq with one of her original harassers, she went AWOL in January, 2006. She was arrested at her mother's home on June 11 and returned to Ft. Lewis in Washington, where she is awaiting criminal charges for AWOL and missing her deployment. The command has now investigated her complaints, but has not released the results.

Sexual harassment and assault are endemic in the military. 1,012 sexual assaults were reported in the military in 2003, jumping to 1,700 in 2004, according to the military's own figures. An Associated Press story this August reported that more than 80 recruiters were disciplined in 2004 for sexual misconduct with potential enlistees. The Department of Defense has admitted that 80 complaints of sexual assault or other sexual misconduct were made in combat zones during 2003. A 2004 military survey of women at official military academies found that 50% of women questioned had experienced sexual harassment. (This followed statements from nearly 150 women who said they were assaulted by male cadets while attending the Air Force Academy between 1993 and 2003.)

The scandal is not just in the continuing pattern of harassment and assault, but also the military's shameful response. Women who complain are ignored, threatened, isolated, labeled “troublemakers” or lesbians. They may face further harassment by the assaulter and his friends, and are often punished with poor performance evaluations, disciplinary action for alleged wrongdoing, unwanted psychiatric evaluations, and even involuntary discharge. Women raped in combat zones have reported poor medical treatment, lack of counseling, failure to gather forensic evidence, incomplete criminal investigations, threats of punishment after making complaints, and a disregard for their safety (often leaving them in the same unit with their attacker), according to the Denver Post. As a result, many simply hide their attack. Many who try to complain eventually give up the process. It is not uncommon for women to go AWOL for their own safety, or as the result of the stress of the assault, as in Suzanne Swift's case. Men all too often escape punishment or receive very minor penalties and are able to continue their military careers.

The military has made some efforts to identify causes and contributing factors, but these are consistently shallow. Reports from the Department of Defense have periodically identified such causes as a lack of training about the definition and wrongness of harassment and assault, lack of clear training in responses to harassment, and lack of repeated training. Alcohol has been cited as a contributing factor, as has the pressure of working in close quarters with women (read: women being allowed to serve in traditionally male jobs).

In reality, however, the military has never addressed the underlying causes of these problems and cannot do so without fundamental criticism of the military and fundamental changes in its role and methods. Sexual harassment and assault result in large part from the intentional use of sexism-sexual imagery and sexual brutality—in military training and indoctrination, and their acceptance in military culture.

Training Soldiers: Power and Sex

During basic training, male soldiers are taught to equate manliness and sexual prowess with prowess as a warrior; sexual violence with military violence; and disobedience or non-conformity with weakness, femininity and homosexuality. Drill instructors use crude parallels between recruits' rifles and penises when discussing maintenance and use of weapons, and emphasize violent sexual imagery in combat training. Recruits who show fear or perform poorly are called “broke dick,” “girl,” “faggot” and worse. Other recruits are encouraged to join in this taunting (and sometimes in physical abuse) of poor performers, distinguishing themselves as the real men. Complainers are told to fill out “PU55Y” forms. In combat training, sexual imagery is routine, and the idea of sex as violence is turned into chants and taunts. This training, like indoctrination using racial stereotypes and names (“ragheads” being among the most innocuous) enable objectification of an enemy and brutality towards that enemy. This training creates soldiers who obey orders without thinking and who are conditioned to engage in the most heinous violence.

Indoctrination of this sort is reinforced in military culture, in the sexist banter and violent imagery common at most commands, in the use of sexual gratification as a reward for good soldiering (in ports of call after long deployments; in R&R after periods of combat). Sexism and harassment become bonding mechanisms within units, used to maintain camaraderie and morale. Inevitably, command tolerance of (and participation in) harassment prevents enforcement of regulations and protects those accused of harassment or assault.

There is, in addition, an important element of anger towards women in traditionally male roles, and an assumption that women who join the military are "either whores or dykes." But this anger exists in the context of the training and culture of male soldiers.

Studies and New Regulations

The most recent study of sexual assault in the military was released in 2004. Conducted at Congressional insistence, it found that assault remained widespread, that women were afraid to report assaults and were discouraged from doing so. Like recent Congressional hearings and media reports, it emphasizes the lack of confidentiality as a major problem.

New regulations were published at the end of 2004 and early 2005, also at Congressional insistence. These regulations allow women to make confidential or “restricted” reports in which their privacy is protected but the assaulter is not investigated. The regs require increased training about sexual assault, including pre-deployment training for troops on their way to war zones, etc., formation of “response teams” to provide medical, counseling and other assistance to women quickly after assaults, and a few discretionary measures to protect women from further assault or retaliation. The services have been slow to implement these new regulations. Many local commands are confused about them or resistant to the “reforms,” and observers have seen little real change.

In the short run, no real reduction in harassment and assault will occur unless military women are empowered to make complaints and given real protection from their assaulters and from command retaliation. This means continuing pressure on the military to enforce new and existing regulations. It means demanding that victims receive legal assistance from military and civilian counsel from the moment they contemplate making a complaint. It must mean keeping pressure on Congress and the media to report those cases in which women want outside focus (anonymous or otherwise). And it means that the women's movement and its supporters must include this issue in their broader work around sexual harassment, developing campaigns to support military women in cooperation with military rights groups to challenge individual cases, to demand effective training and implementation, and to expose the underlying issues.

In the long run, real change requires much more. If the underlying issues are made public and the military is required to stop using the worst sexism to teach soldiering and obedience, to end the objectification and dehumanization of women and enemies in every aspect of training, it will be possible to control the rampant sexism in the military. But this would also mean basic changes in how and why soldiers fight. If it is not to prove manliness, if it is not a form of sexual dominance, then the motivation for fighting might have to be based on more honorable motives-protecting the weak against oppression, fighting for things this country and its people believe in. It would mean a military in which discipline and obedience of orders would have to flow from commitment and belief in the cause, rather than a desire to prove oneself as a man.

Kathleen Giberd is the co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force. NLG Military Law Task is a former Resist grantee. For more information, contact MLTF, 318 Ortega Street, San Francisco, CA 94122; www.nlg.org/mltf.

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • reddit icon
  • delicious icon
  • digg icon

259 Elm Street, Suite 201 | Somerville, MA 02144
email: info@resistinc.org | tel: 617-623-5110
©2010 RESIST, Inc. | Privacy Policy