The Culture of Sexism in the Military

Strong Field Project GraduationPhotos Copyright Noah Berger

Belinda Rolicheck, Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus

Contributed by Belinda Rolicheck, Executive Director of Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus.

Over the last couple of years, the prevalence of sexual assault in the military has been a very hot topic of conversation. The related topic of how to address the problem and the best way to serve military survivors of sexual assault is also often discussed. As a woman who served in the United States Army and now works in an agency serving sexual assault survivors, I have both personal experience and a somewhat different perspective than most people weighing in on the subject.
By its very nature, and largely due to the organizational structure and expectations of soldiers during and outside of combat, the military exemplifies a culture of sexual violence and harassment.  During the period of time I served in the military, I saw numerous examples of sexual harassment, misconduct and inappropriate sexual relationships. Much of the time I spent in the military was as a trainee, both during basic training and later in my Advanced Individual Training (AIT) course. In both settings, relationships between trainees and permanent duty staff were expressly prohibited. These prohibitions, however, did virtually nothing to prevent the existence of such relationships and very little to discourage permanent duty staff from taking advantage of their position over trainees.
When I was nearing the end of my nearly one-year AIT course, our company First Sergeant (who was the ranking enlisted officer in the company) summoned me and three other female soldiers into his office.  He proceeded to close the door and then ordered us all to turn our backs to him and bend over, ostensibly to ensure that our pants were not too tight. This is a true story. Of course, since he was the ranking person in the company and our successful graduation from training was largely in his hands, we had no choice to comply and we did. I can’t tell you how long we were in this position or what he gained from the experience, but it was humiliating at best.  After we left the office, we never spoke of it again.  While this is a fairly mild example of sexual misconduct on the spectrum of sexual violence, it is an excellent illustration of what female recruits, trainees and permanent duty soldiers experience on a daily basis.
In every aspect of their interactions with trainees, military training personnel (such as drill sergeants and others) drive home the importance of obeying orders. The bottom line is to do what you’re told, without hesitation, when ranking personnel tell you to do so.  You don’t question orders and you don’t ask for justification. Military experts and brass will always tell you this is the only way to maintain an effective fighting force. Add to this power inequality and the disproportionate numbers of men to women in the military, and you start to understand how the structure and culture perpetuates and emboldens sexual transgression and violence. There is an inherent and pervasive culture of sexism and control at the root of military philosophy.
I genuinely believe the incidence of sexual violence in the military is much broader in scope than has been portrayed in both media and Pentagon reports.  The discussion of sexual assault in the military is solely focused on violent rapes and does not even take into account the insidious nature of sexism and harassment. As rape crisis advocates, we understand that unchecked sexual harassment can quickly escalate into sexual assault.  I believe by ignoring the issue, an individual or organization is tacitly condoning the behavior.  Survivors of sexual assault need to have someone they can talk to without fear of reprisals; many do not believe their commanders or their immediate ranking supervisors are those people.  Like any other survivor of sexual assault, military personnel need to know they can speak in confidence, but have unique concerns about reprisals and the consequences of speaking out.  Victims must feel trust and support from the person to whom they report, or they will most certainly remain silent.  When they are unsure of their confidant’s objectivity or agenda, there remains a significant barrier to seeking help.
It is generally accepted that sexual assault is rooted in the need for power and control over another person and that sex is the weapon.  Sexual assault and domestic violence are part of a continuum of violence largely perpetrated by men against women, though frequently men are violated as well. While not every woman who enlists in the military is sexually assaulted, virtually all of them will experience some form of sexual misconduct from ogling and sexist comments to other forms of sexual harassment and sexual assault.  While I applaud the effort to address violent sexual assaults, I believe if there was a larger effort to change the culture of sexism in the armed forces, the problem would largely solve itself. The prosecution of offenders is a small component of the solution, but there will be no true solution to the problem without the equalization of the numbers of women and men, particularly in positions of authority, and giving women true equality in the armed forces.
This blog post was written by Belinda Rolicheck, Executive Director of the Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus. CALCASA appreciates blog contributions from our members and invites others to participate on a topic of interest or expertise. Contact Shaina Brown for more information.