Sexism in the Military — What the Army Brochures Wont Tell You

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Sexism is deeply embedded in military culture. Military life demands unquestioning obedience to superior officers who are overwhelmingly men, which reinforces time and time again the inferior place of women. Male soldiers are exposed to and become part of a way of life that constantly sexualizes and devalues women. It is an extreme, concentrated expression of the sexism underlying capitalist society generally.

For most women in the military, the torrent of sexual harassment starts in the academy. Female cadets are often treated with open hostility, enduring unwelcome sexual advances and repeated incidents of hazing. Some hazings are extreme and even life-threatening, including reports of women having their clothes set on fire.

According to one study, 70.9% of women in active duty report being sexually harassed. (i) Women are often sexually harassed multiple times while serving in the military, regardless of their rank. “This is not about sexual tension – harassment is about the abuse of power,” explained one retired Air Force officer who had been in uniform for over 20 years and had been harassed on more than half a dozen separate occasions. (ii)

Female soldiers serving in Iraq have reported high rates of sexual assault and rape from fellow soldiers and superiors. To avoid sexual assault, women are starting to use the “buddy system.” They stay armed and in pairs at all times, even when going to the bathroom, out of fear of being raped. Though grossly underreported, it is estimated that as many as 30% of female soldiers experience an attempted or completed rape. (iii)

Perhaps more disturbing is the military’s treatment of women after the rape or assault has been reported. The victims are often given poor medical treatment and no counseling to deal with the trauma. While rape and incest are exceptions to the military’s ban on abortions, rape victims are still forced to pay for the expensive, invasive procedure themselves. Many women also complain of biased criminal investigations, where the validity of their allegations is repeatedly questioned and they are forced to continue working in close proximity to the men who raped them.

Women can also face retaliation by their peers and superior officers if they report sexual assault. Women who complain of sexual assault are often viewed as troublemakers who have no place in the military, and some women receive dishonorable discharges and falsified medical leaves. In the words of former Army Captain Jennifer Machmer, the man who raped her “is now serving at Fort Knox, Kentucky, finishing out his career, while I’m here being raped out of my career.” (iv) Instead of adopting fair procedures to address the allegations of rape within its ranks, the military suggests that the answer to charges of widespread sexual harassment is segregation of jobs by gender.

Female soldiers are also particularly vulnerable to sex discrimination. Women, who are now 15% of the armed forces, are subject to an extreme double standard in the military. Women who wish to become high-ranking officers are forced to make huge personal sacrifices. The majority of high-ranking female army officers are not married, and those that are often choose to adopt children instead of having their own because they can’t afford to become pregnant.

Anti-war activists need to warn the young women who are being targeted by military recruiters about the harsh conditions they will face, because recruiters almost never warn female recruits of these realities. The anti-war movement also needs to support women in the military who are fighting back against the humiliation, violence, and discrimination they endure. To effectively defend themselves, women in the military need to get organized and to link their struggle against unfair treatment to the growing movement among military families and soldiers to end the occupation of Iraq.

(i) Antecol, H. and D.A. Cobb-Clark.  “The Sexual Harassment of Female Active-Duty Personnel.” (ideas.repec.org/p/clm/clmeco/2001-27.html)
(ii) Corbin, B. and L. Bennett-Haigney.  “Sexual Harassment: Open Season on Working Women.” (www.now.org/nnt/03-97/sexual.html#military)
(iii) “Researchers study women’s risk of rape in military.” March 2003.  (http://www3.scienceblog.com/community/older/2003/B/20036513.html)
(iv) Shumway, Chris.  “Sexualized Violence Against Female Soldiers Going Largely Unpunished.”  The New Standard. 16 June 2004. (http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/549)