Women in Combat: A Mirror of Society?

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A female Marine drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C.

While I strongly support the military’s decision to allow women to hold combat and special ops positions, I am concerned that the military thinks this will substantially cut back on sexual assaults by equalizing male and female roles.

Rather, sexual assaults in the military are endemic, mirroring those in the population as a whole. While women’s secondary status has historically made women vulnerable, their growing enfranchisement works to undercut assumptions of male/masculine superiority and the sanctity of previously all-male domains, fueling simmering resentments that can lead to assault.  This isn’t true for all men, of course, many of whom respect women’s achievements and skills.

Two competing discourses dominate pop culture today: on the one hand, that women are fully equal to men and can do anything men can do, and on the other, that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.”  Packed into this cliché, propagated by, for instance, best-selling author John Gray (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sexare notions traditionalists love to perpetuate:

— That men and women are intrinsically, different, and this can never change: it is a “given” of biology;  indeed, men and women are so different, it could be said that they hail from different, even diametrically opposed, planets.
— That men are “naturally” bellicose, powerful and aggressive, while women are “naturally” made for love, sensual, venal (corruptible).
— That it is men’s “job” to fight, women’s job to pleasure men, and so on.

Built into these notions is the grounding of permission to consider women’s equal participation in the military undesirable at the very least, even deplorable, destructive of femininity (and of masculinity).

Pair this pop-culture psychology with the celebration of hypermasculine performance in the media, from rap stars to action heroes, and the concomitant denigration of any whiff of effeminacy or expression of vulnerability or emotion, and with the disenfranchisement of men in a culture that no longer values or needs men’s earning power or protection (see, for instance, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man). That’s a foolproof formula for the scapegoating, harassment and/or abuse of women (and gays).

Military leaders have stated that sexual assault and harassment violate and are inconsistent with core professional values and culture. Yet they refuse to confront the problem head-on, despite allegations by the many young women (and some young men) who have been assaulted that there is a “culture” of harassment and of retaliation in the military.

Linking the decision to allow women to participate in combat roles and elite corps to (a then hoped for) reduction in sexual violence again sidesteps the very real issue of this endemic sexual violence. It underscores the failure of the military’s leadership to effect cultural change in their ranks.

How can the issue of sexual violence against women (and some men) in the military be addressed more effectively?

First and foremost, the military must openly acknowledge and take responsibility for the culture of harassment and violence that pervades the military so that it can be openly addressed. Only then will those who have been harassed feel that they can come forward without adverse consequences to their persons or their careers.

Other countries, including Israel, have successfully integrated women into their militaries for generations despite a culture of machismo. America should look to Israel’s lead here: from the secretary of defense on down, a new attitude and code of conduct must be embraced.

Training women for the military’s toughest missions alongside men, hopefully, will engender greater equality and respect.

But ultimately the effort to inculcate real change in the military culture will require a zero-tolerance attitude toward sexual assault in the civilian world, too. That’s a battle in which all of us civilians should enlist.

Barbara Gottfried is co-director of undergraduate studies for the Boston University Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She teaches a sociology course “American Masculinities.”