Sexual harassment in the military
Sexual harassment in the military is unwanted sexual behaviour, which is defined as threatening, offensive, or otherwise upsetting to others in a military setting. The behaviour is more common in the military than in civilian life. Women are substantially more likely than men to experience sexual harassment in the armed forces. Other groups at higher risk include child cadets/recruits and military detainees.
- 1 Definitions
- 2 Behaviour
- 3 Prevalence and risk factors
- 4 Principal targets
- 5 Barriers to redress
- 6 Mental health effects
- 7 Prevention
- 8 Sexual harassment in the military, by country
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
- Australian Defence Forces: Unwanted sexual advances or sexual requests towards to another person
- British Army: Unwanted sexually based conduct or other conduct affecting the dignity of women and men at work.
- Canadian Armed Forces: Improper conduct directed at and offensive to others, which the perpetrator ought reasonably know would be so.
- United States Armed Forces: Unwanted sexual advances and other behaviour of a sexual nature.
Sexual harassment in the military includes a broad spectrum of behaviour. Undirected behaviours that affect the working environment, such as sexist jokes and the prominent display of pornographic material, may constitute sexual harassment, as do directed behaviours targeted at one or more individuals, such as unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault. Research in Canada has found that a culture of undirected sexual harassment increases the risk of directed sexual harassment and assault.
In the British army, a woman told the following story to researchers in 2006:
‘A friend was out on an exercise when a group of men ducked her head in a bucket of water and each time she came up for breath she had to repeat “I am useless and I am a female”. She told the story and said it was a joke but I could see she was upset.’
In the Canadian armed forces, demeaning attitudes to women are pervasive, according to the Deschamps Review of 2015:
'Interviewees reported regularly being told of orders to “stop being pussies” and to “leave your purses at home” [...] The use of the word “cunt”, for example, is commonplace, and rape jokes are tolerated. [...] A commonly held attitude is that, rather than be a soldier, a sailor or an aviator, a woman will be labeled an “ice princess”, a “bitch”, or a “slut”. Another saying is that women enter the CAF “to find a man, to leave a man, or to become a man”.'
'It was months before I could pronounce the word "rape"... I blamed myself. I said: "We are trained in hand to hand combat. Why didn’t I stop him?" But when that happens you are terrorised.'
In the US Army, a woman recalls attending a class for sexual abuse and sexual harassment training, titled 'personal development training'. The senior officer teaching the class asked participants whether they would hit on 'a naked, drunk girl on the bench outside your barracks', adding, 'you're not supposed to but I probably would.'
US Senator Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican, said during a Senate meeting on sexual assault in the military that she was raped by a superior officer in the US Air Force. McSally was the first female pilot in the US Air Force to fly in combat operations. She said that she never reported the rape because she did not trust the military justice system; she also said that she blamed herself for the incident, and that she had thought she was strong but felt powerless.
Prevalence and risk factors
Studies of sexual harassment have found that it is markedly more common in military than civilian settings. Several reasons for this have been suggested. A Canadian study found that key risk factors associated with military settings are the typically young age of personnel, the isolated locations of bases, the minority status of women, and the disproportionate number of men in senior positions. Other Canadian research has found that an emphasis in military organisations on conformity, obedience, and hierarchical power relations, combine to increase the risk, particularly to personnel of low rank, who are less able than others to resist inappropriate expectations made of them. The traditionally masculine values and behaviours that are rewarded and reinforced in military settings are also thought to play a role.
While some male personnel are sexually harassed, women are substantially more likely to be affected. Women who are younger and joined the military at a younger age face a greater risk, according to American, British, Canadian, and French research.
Cadet forces are military youth organisations for younger teenagers based in communities and schools, and are common around the world. There is some evidence from the UK, where hundreds of complaints of the sexual abuse of cadets have been recorded since 2012, and from Canada, where one in ten complaints of sexual assault in the military are from cadets, that these institutions are susceptible to a culture of sexual harassment.
Individuals detained by the military are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. During the Iraq War, for example, personnel of the US army and US Central Intelligence Agency committed a number of human rights violations against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison, including rape, sodomy, and other forms of sexual abuse. Another example is the detention of two Iraqi men on a British warship at the start of the Iraq War, when they were made to strip naked and were then sexually humiliated.
Barriers to redress
- An official report of the Australian Defence Force concluded that women affected by harassment were less likely to make a complaint because they do not expect a serious response.
- The ombudsman of the Canadian armed forces confirmed that women fear the consequences if they report a sexual offence against them to their chain of command: 'The fear of repercussions is blatant,' he said in 2014. In 2015, the Deschamps Review reported that one of the main reasons why personnel do not lodge a complaint is a fear of the consequences for their career and that there had many complainants had faced reprisals.
- Leila Minano, the co-author of a book documenting sexual abuse in the French armed forces, commented that complaints from women were systematically discouraged from complaining, and were often moved out of their unit if they did so.
- In the UK, an official report on sexual harassment in the British army found that almost half of personnel who had an 'upsetting' experience of sexual harassment did not complain for fear of an impact on their career.
- In the US armed forces, a study in 2016 found that 58% of women who reported sexual misconduct by peers said that they had met with retaliation as a consequence. The Department of Defense estimated in 2017 that two in three victims of sexual assault do not report it.
Since the number of official complaints represents only a fraction of sexual harassment in the military, armed forces that have committed to reduce prevalence produce periodic estimates of its extent using anonymised surveys.
Mental health effects
Women affected by sexual harassment are more likely than other women to suffer stress-related mental illness afterwards. Research in the US found that when sexual abuse of female military personnel is psychiatrically traumatic, the odds of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after deployment on operations increase by a factor of nine.
Research in the US has found that personnel affected by sexual harassment are somewhat less likely to develop depression or PTSD if a formal report leads to effective action to address the issue.
The military leadership in some countries has begun to acknowledge a culture of sexual misconduct in the armed forces. For example:
- The British armed forces co-commissioned their first formal study of the problem in 2006, and in 2016 the head of the British army noted the ‘overly sexualised’ soldier culture and committed to reducing the extent of sexual misconduct.
- In 2016, after a major study uncovered widespread sexual harassment and assault in the Canadian armed forces, General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, acknowledged: 'Harmful sexual behaviour is a real problem in our institution.'
- The US established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2005, which reports annually.
Sexual harassment in the military, by country
Widespread reports of sexual harassment in the Australian armed forces led to the establishment of the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce to investigate complaints from women between 1991 and 2011. It received 2,439 complaints, of which it deemed 1,751 to be plausible.
A Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse was established in 2012, which investigated widespread allegations of historical abuse in the navy. The Commission took evidence from 8,000 individuals and reported in 2017 that many recruits of both sexes and from the age of 15 had been repeatedly sexually abused by older recruits between 1967 and 1971, including by anal gang rape, and in some cases young recruits had been forced to rape each other. The practice was ‘tolerated’ by senior staff, according to the Commission.
According to official statistics gathered by Maclean's magazine, the Canadian military police received an average of 178 complaints of sexual assault per year between 2000 and 2014, representing an estimated 10% of all cases.
In 2015, after widespread allegations of sexual misconduct in the military, a major official report, the External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces (the Deschamps Review), was published. It found that sexual harassment was commonplace and embedded in military culture, and that pervasive degrading attitudes to women and LGBTQ personnel were jeopardising their safety. The Deschamps Review also criticised the armed forces for a culture of dismissiveness. One male interview told the Review, for example: "Girls that come to the Army know what to expect." It stated that senior NCOs are frequently seen as tolerating sexual harassment and discouraging the individuals affected from making a complaint.
The following year, in 2016, a major study of 43,000 Canadian armed forces personnel reported that 27% of female personnel reported at least one incident of sexual assault since they joined the military, and 5% of female regular armed forces personnel reported the same in the previous 12 months (equivalent to approximately 960 women per year).
The extent of sexual harassment in the French armed forces first came to light in 2014 when 35 cases of sexual harassment and assault were detailed in La Guerre Invisible, a book by Leila Minano and Julia Pascual. According to the Independent newspaper, the armed forces had not been required to report incidents or to keep statistics, and an official report acknowledged that awareness of the problem had been institutionally suppressed.
Following concerns expressed in 2004 by the UK Equal Opportunities Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) about persistent sexual harassment in the British armed forces, a number of anonymised, official surveys have been undertaken. The first, in 2006, found that a male-dominated culture sexualised women and diminished their military competence. Among the comments made to researchers by male personnel about their female counterparts were: ‘Ok there are a few exceptions but on the whole they [women] shouldn’t be here.’; 'They're all lesbians or sluts.'; and 'They are emotionally unstable.' The report found that 15% of women had had a 'particularly upsetting' experience of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months; the proportion rose to 20% in the youngest age group. A similar survey in 2009 found the 8% of women in the army had had a ‘particularly upsetting’ experience in the previous 12 months, and the most recent survey, in 2015, found that 13% of women reported the same.
In 2017, a BBC Panorama documentary found multiple cases of the sexual abuse of cadets from age 11 during the 1980s, and reported that the victims and their parents were discouraged from making a formal complaint or contacting the police. The Ministry of Defence paid £2 million in 2012 and 2013 to settle allegations of the child sexual abuse of military cadets, and between 2012 and 2017 recorded a further 363 allegations, of which 282 were referred to the police.
The Navy's 1991 Tailhook scandal exposed the egregious acts that occurred during the 35th annual convention in Las Vegas, NV, where 100 Navy and Marine Corp. aviation officers sexually assaulted 83 women and 7 men. Active Navy Lieutenant, aviator, victim, and whistleblower, Paula Coughlin, appeared before congress in 1991 to testify about the sexual abuse and sexual harassment she endured at the hands of her comrades at Tailhook. Her testimony led to improved regulations intended to combat sexual harassment and assault in the military.
Accurate statistics of sexual harassment in the armed forces are elusive as the Pentagon tracks only reports of sexual assault, not sexual harassment. A 2017 Department of Defense report for the 2016 fiscal year indicates that reported incidents of sexual assault increased 10 percent over the previous year, and most often, active duty members were victimized by higher ranking service members. It further states that the Department of Defense does not specifically confirm that sexual harassment causes sexual assault in the armed forces, but does confirm that the two are inexplicably intertwined. The report found that an active duty military woman who reported sexual harassment to a superior was 16 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted than one who did not report, while a man who reported increased his chance of sexual assault after reporting by 50 percent.
In 2017, the Department of Defense reported that an estimated 14,900 military personnel were sexually assaulted in 2016, of whom 6,172 made an official complaint. According to an article published in Medscape, up to 80% of women in the armed forces have been sexually harassed, and 25% have experienced a sexual assault.
- Sexual harassment
- Wartime sexual violence
- Military sexual trauma
- Women in the military
- Children in the military
- Sexual assault in the United States military
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- Canadian armed forces: Dechamps Review, 2016
- French armed forces: La Guerre Invisible, 2014
- US armed forces: Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office