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women in military sexual assault

Want to Recruit Women? Address Sexual Assault and Harassment

Words: Emma Moore
Pictures: Cadet Amanda Lin/US Army

At a time when the military is in a “war for talent,” ongoing instances of harassment and violence against women will continue to suppress young women’s interest in service, leaving half the talent pool less accessible. The murder of Vanessa Guillén, and her family’s report that she disclosed instances of sexually harassment, has once again called to light the fundamental culture change needed across the military. The #IAmVanessaGuillen and #JusticeforVanessaGuillen resurgence of the military #metoo movement again raises the question of why women should serve in the military, which has regularly been shown to be a toxic environment for so many of them, particularly in the junior enlisted ranks.

The military sometimes claims sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination are simply manifestations of a broader societal problem; while the rate of sexual violence has fallen nationwide in the past two decades, one in six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. On college campuses, with a high concentration of young people like the military, one in five women or 23 percent of undergraduate women experience sexual assault. However, gender discrimination is also a military problem. As a country, we hold service members and the military institution to a higher standard, entrusting them with the defense of the nation and giving them the authority to use violence. Sexual assault and harassment stand out because while rates of other violent crimes are lower in the military (the military rape differential), the rate of sexual assault in the military is comparable, meaning the ratio is substantially larger.

Official Department of Defense estimates in 2018 were that 6.2 percent of active duty women experienced past-year sexual assault and 24 percent experienced sexual harassment, despite similar reporting rates. While men in the military are also victims of sexual assault and harassment, rates for women are significantly higher. Sexual assault rates were highest in the Marine Corps (estimated at 10.7 percent of women), followed by the Navy (7.5 percent), Army (5.8 percent), and Air Force (4.3 percent), all increases from 2016 levels. These numbers are critical because they measure past-year rather than lifetime or cumulative rates, illustrating how prevalent gender discrimination is in the services.

The 2014 RAND Military Workforce Study found “A large proportion of all sexual assaults occur at a relatively few large installations for each of the services,” evidencing patterns of misbehavior and insufficient command to minimize service members’ risk of sexual assault. The separation rate for women service members is 28 percent higher than men service members, due at least in part to sexual assault concerns according to the Government Accountability Office. Yet most women veterans view their military experience as a net positive, with the caveat that slightly fewer (78 percent) would recommend a young person join the military than their men counterparts (82 percent). For those unknowledgeable or disconnected from the military, it remains hard to recognize the benefits of service despite gender discrimination and outright harassment.

Asking women to join “despite” sexual harassment, to “be the change,” or because “nothing will change if women don’t join” puts the burden on women rather than those who already hold the power to drive change: leadership and men serving.

Every year brings new reports of sexual misconduct and inadequate command response: such as 2017’s Marines United, 2019’s sharp rise in assaults in the military and military academies, this year’s investigation of the 416th Theater Engineer Command, and news that the trailblazing first female rescue swimmer was consistently harassed after joining the community. The majority of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are upstanding individuals, but the message sent to the public remains that the military is fundamentally inhospitable to women. According to the Department of Defense’s annual influencer poll, parents and grandparents are consistently less likely to support youth joining the Army and Marine Corps, though specific reasons why are not collected. In its inability to systematically address the culture of discrimination, the military loses the narrative on what kind of organization it is.

The growing distance between the public and the military exacerbates the perception (and for many, the reality) that the military treats women poorly, or at a minimum has not prioritized their wellbeing. This is especially true considering how many Americans consume information about the military. Movies featuring women in uniform almost universally depict a struggle of dismissiveness, harassment, and sexism, while news media has covered the highs and lows of gender integration and women’s increasing role in the military. Young women indicate much lower propensity for service (around 7 percent over time) than young men (around 16 percent) and illustrate much lower confidence in the ability to have a successful career in any of the services. Ongoing societal debates over women’s participation in the military, long held to be a masculine establishment, only highlight the need for active engagement by the services to recruit women and challenge the narrative that women have a place in the military.

When women admit that the heavy weight of these burdens makes them reluctant to join or more likely to leave the service, however, they are urged to sign up and stay in to solve these problems. The onus of change is not, and should not be, on women, but rather should be on men – who make up the vast bulk of service members and hold the predominant number of military leadership positions – to be allies. This must go beyond not actively participating in discrimination themselves and extend to standing against any form of discrimination and harassment. The burden of responsibility is on leadership to prioritize reducing sexual assault and harassment rather than merely paying lip service to “zero tolerance” while tacitly condoning climates rife with gender discrimination. Asking women to join “despite” sexual harassment, to “be the change,” or because “nothing will change if women don’t join” puts the burden on women rather than those who already hold the power to drive change: leadership and men serving.

Change needs to come from within and without. Civilian leadership and Congress must demand more than regular accounting and comprehensive training. These attempts have proven insufficient. There must be consequences, not excuses that disciplinary action is cutting a career short. Leaders must be held accountable not just for perpetuating harassment but turning a blind eye to it; offenders must be held accountable through more than a slap on the wrist, and service members who retaliate to those who report must be held accountable. Those who perpetrate sexual violence should be prosecuted, those who enable discrimination should not be promoted, and bystanders should receive significant disciplinary action or prosecution. Otherwise, the tacit attitude is that sexual assault and harassment are not a priority to be systematically addressed.

The military has proven its ability to drive change and maintain standards it cares about: the Army has spent 10 years developing and pushing through a new fitness test (the Army Combat Fitness Test) despite many valid criticisms and delays, while the Marine Corps did not relax grooming standards (demanding regular haircuts) despite the public health and logistic constraints of the coronavirus pandemic. Rates of illicit drug use are substantially lower among military personnel compared to the general population: troops know they will face serious consequences for failing a urinalysis while on active duty, whatever state laws may be.

Recurring recommendations on how to recruit and retain women in the services evidence a lack of understanding or support for women in favor of euphemistic prioritization of “culture” and “standards.” The military has long hidden behind the banner of readiness to say personnel change – family leave policies or gender integration – cannot be accomplished. Women veterans and advocates have been arguing for change for years, but we are still having these conversations. If the military is serious about recruiting talent, which must include recruiting women as the number of eligible men continues to fall, real gains need to be seen. It is past time.

Emma Moore is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security and Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University.

Emma Moore

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