Military sexual violence: when will the military have its #MeToo moment?

Military sexual violence: when will the military have its #MeToo moment?

In May this year, the Department of Defence in the United States released a disturbing report which showed sexual assault in the military had gone up in their ranks by nearly 40% in just two years.

In Australia, no such surveys are publicly available but it is estimated around 26% of servicewomen and 9% of servicemen have been sexually assaulted.

This week, a panel of six experts will be discussing why the military is yet to have its #MeToo moment.

Speakers include Ellen Haring, Chief Executive Officer at the Service Women’s Action Network, a Washington DC based organisation that regularly supports servicewomen who have been assaulted. She is also an academic, a former West Point graduate and a retired army colonel.

The discussion is being chaired by Megan Mackenzie, a Professor of Gender and War at the University of Sydney, who has studied military suicide and sexual assault, and the integration of women into combat roles.

This is an edited extract of an interview I conducted with Ellen Haring and Dr Megan Mackenzie.

JD: Ellen – a new report came out looking at sexual assault in the US military. Why has it nearly doubled?

EH: I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with a backlash against the #metoo movement. Maybe it has something to do with greater integration. More women are coming into the service and more women are going into these newly integrated units that haven’t had women before. I think that perhaps it is a combination of those things. But if I knew why, I’d be the million-dollar winner because then maybe we could solve this problem.

JD: When the report came out, how did you feel about when you saw those statistics?

EH: Disheartened and frustrated because we have actually done a number of things in the US. We have been shining a spotlight on it and we’re constantly talking about it. We’re taking care of victims and also created training programs and conducting education to try to explain to people ‘What is sexual assault? How does it happen?’ And despite all that, the problems are getting worse.

JD: Megan, what’s the situation in Australia? What do we know about sexual assault in the Australian military?

MM: The incidence numbers have stayed the same over the last few years, despite some of the scandals that have gone down – like the Skype one, and the Jedi Council. They are also the same despite the former Lieutenant General David Morrison releasing his video a few years ago calling for sexual assault to stop.

JD: You’re doing a study at the moment looking at the way sexual assault in the military is talked about in the media. What have you found?

MM: What we found so far is that basically the adage that “boys will be boys” still persists. We still have this idea that military culture is so unique and special, and the way we train soldiers fosters camaraderie, and all the things we need to be successful in war. But also, it fosters this kind of potential hostility, this kind of lack of accountability that can lead to sexual assault. So, there’s this paradoxical way we talk about military culture.

JD: Ellen, what next for the US military then? What would you like to see? 

EH: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York is attempting to get a new bill passed, which is called the Military Justice Improvement Act. It would take the decision making [about sexual assault cases] out of the hands of commanders. Commanders would no longer get to decide whether a case is investigated, or whether it moves forward. It would automatically go to trained professionals within the military justice system … they would investigate and prosecute.

But again, that’s looking at this problem after a crime has occurred. It’s not focused on stopping crimes before they occur. I think we need to focus on our initial entry level training. When we put civilians into the military, we train them and we take them through this whole enculturation indoctrination period called boot camp. And kind of this iconic period where supposedly we break down civilians, and we build them up.

JD: A process you went through yourself?

EH: Yes, I’ve went through a very extended version of it because I went to West Point. It’s actually a whole year. It was basically a whole year of being harassed and hazed … a lot of pressure just to see if people can’t function with a lot of pressure. You weed them out and they leave the military because you don’t want people like that. I would argue that we don’t do the building up part, we just break people down.

The ones that stay do so because they were able to tolerate it, especially when we’re talking young entry level enlisted soldiers. And that’s where the majority of this problem is occurring. It’s happening to the youngest women who are just on their first assignment. Not that it doesn’t happen to older women and certainly women officers but the bulk of the victims are those entry level junior women and the perpetrators, in many instances, our first and second term men.

I don’t think we’ve ever done a good job of really teaching people about morals and taking care of the person on your right and left the way we claim we do.

JD: You’ve got a panel next week on #metoo. People would’ve thought that when Morrison put out the video was going to stop, that was some raising of the issue. So you’re saying we haven’t had the #metoo for the military?

MM: Military leaders make these zero tolerance statements and it’s not true. There’s a high tolerance for sexual assault in the military. And we need to acknowledge that there’s a high tolerance for it within the military. There’s also high tolerance from the public.

We see reports and scandals almost every year, and the public isn’t up in arms about it. We still trust the military, they still remain the number one trusted institution. So I think that’s where the conversation has to start — there is no zero tolerance. There is high tolerance. And, we should ask, what would it look life if there was zero tolerance?

JD: You don’t see outrage from Australian feminists about women in the military and assault.

MM: That’s a whole separate conversation. Even the feminist International Relations community have sort of left women in the military hanging a bit. And there’s a maybe a bit of an anti-military sentiment where women in the military are on their own. They’ve made that choice. I do think there’s a bit of that but I don’t think it’s acceptable. I think it’s a public institution, and we need to have the same level of critical thinking about it.

Jackie Dent is a journalist, curator and communications expert with over 20 years of diverse experience with a range of mainstream organisations. She is also doing a PhD focused on war in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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