Because of their gender, many American servicewomen pay an extra-large price to serve their country. Military women experience much higher rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment than other American women. Recently, the Pentagon reported that approximately 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the American military last year, 88% experienced by women. If this isn’t bad enough, what they experience when they report these crimes or seek treatment is often heart breaking. Feminist psychology (and some other psychologies), help us understand sexual assault and harassment in America’s military, and what to do about it.
As a new campaign by End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) emphasizes, one of the first things we can do to reduce sexual assault trauma is to believe survivors. Yet stories abound of military women being disbelieved or discouraged from reporting by their superiors. Many are labeled as “troublemakers,” or “personality-disordered” when they seek treatment for the post-traumatic stress common to sexual assault survivors. The Military Rape Crisis Center found that since 2003, ninety percent of those who reported the crime were involuntarily discharged. Such treatment adds to the trauma of sexual assault. Clearly, the military’s first step should be to start believing.
The military’s second step should be to eliminate organizational tolerance, a key factor in workplace sexual violence. This is a big reason why the sexual harassment and sexual assault of servicewomen continues: it’s allowed. Sexual assault and harassment policies and procedures are ineffective without clear, unwavering, top-down support (especially in the obedience-oriented military). In recent speeches, Obama and Hagel express this support but they need to keep the pressure on, and that pressure needs to pass down through the chain of command without dilution.
Sexual violence in the workplace is sometimes used to secure men’s dominance. Sexual assault perpetrators are typically misogynous. These women-hating men may be attracted to military service due to its traditional domination by men and norms of masculine aggression. They may use sexual violence as a weapon to keep women in their place. Most perpetrators are also serial sexual assault opportunists with some psychopathy. These “few rotten men” capitalize on systems that fail to support survivors and identify and punish perpetrators. This leads to the military’s third step: identify and deal with perpetrators and fix the systems that enable their behavior.
Finally, I offer a “bottom-up” strategy for reducing gendered violence in the military workplace. Current sexual assault prevention strategies focus on men as allies and on bystander intervention. I know our American military has more than just “a few good men.” As suggested by Obama and Hagel, these good men play an important role in change. They can intervene when sexual assault risk is high. They can assert positive masculinities that do not promote gender inequality and come at the expense of American servicewomen. They can redefine honor and loyalty so that it does not mean covering for sexual harassers and sexual assault perpetrators. They can believe and support sexual assault survivors.
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