Menus Subscribe Search

Military Gender Roles Still Thorny Problem

• April 11, 2011 • 3:13 PM

Despite decades of official attention, women in the military face pervasive sexism and surprisingly frequent sexual assault from within the ranks, noted speakers at the recent Gender Justice conference at West Point.

Gray skies covered the cluster of gray stone buildings and perfectly manicured fields at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. last Friday as a group of about 50 students — cadets and midshipmen from all the U.S. service academies, as well as some students from other universities — gathered inside the brightly lit main library for an earnest discussion on gender issues in the U.S. armed forces.

Speakers at the two-day Gender Justice conference — hosted by the West Point Center for the Rule of Law — tackled a tight range of sober topics, and the Friday morning speaker presented the results of three years of research about a particularly troubling subject: rape and gender inequality in the military.

According to her research, said Helen Benedict, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of the book The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, 1 in 3 women in the U.S. military is raped by another service member.

Mickiela Montoya, one of the female Iraq veterans Benedict interviewed for the book, explained her experience of men’s treatment of women in the military: “There are three things they’ll let you be: A bitch, a ho or a dyke. You’re a bitch if you won’t sleep with them; you’re a ho if you have only one boyfriend; and you’re a dyke if you don’t like them.”

While many of the women Benedict interviewed while researching her book had not been sexually assaulted, she was struck by the number and severity of sexual assault cases she did encounter. As she spoke with more and more female Iraq veterans, she began to consider the differences between soldiers who commit assault and the ones who don’t. More than the problem being “a few bad eggs,” she suggested that a permissive culture allows assault cases to go unnoticed and perpetrators unpunished and has encouraged the continuation of inappropriate behavior.

Benedict called upon the audience — the armed forces’ future leaders — to change what she said is a culture that promotes gender inequality and violence toward women.

While all of Friday’s panel speakers agreed with Benedict’s assertion that the military establishment needs to change its treatment of women, not everyone agreed with her bleak assessment of the status quo. Col. Charles Pede, chief of the Criminal Law Division at the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, asserted that his office has been working hard to combat sexual assault cases. Condemning what he said was the book’s dim picture of a career in uniform, he asked how many resignations would follow Benedict’s sobering presentation.

The military has been aware of the sexual harassment (and worse) problem — in the academies, in the ranks and even in the reservesfor decades. Besides its moral dimension, leaders have long cited the harm it does to mission readiness and even the bottom line.

The Department of Defense’s office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response is mandated to report to Congress on the issue and has since 2004; “the data provided in such reports serve as the foundation and catalyst for future sexual assault prevention, training, victim care and accountability goals,” it says.

The problem, Col. Pede said, lay in recruiting military enlisted personnel from a misogynistic street culture. Referencing a poster of a scantily clad woman surrounded by profane slogans he had seen in a base medical clinic in Iraq, he called for better leadership to combat inappropriate sexual attitudes.

“The young soldier [who put up the poster] thought it was OK,” he recalled. “How does that happen?”

An expert at helping managers try to solve seemingly insurmountable conflicts posed another question. “How is it that some women come [to West Point], meritorious in every way, and become collaborators in their own oppression?” asked Mark Munger, senior associate at Tufts University’s Positive Deviance Initiative.

He suggested a unique approach to closing the military’s gender gap. Instead of focusing solely on the perpetrators of sexual assault, as is more traditional, he proposed studying the behavior of people who already extend respect and inclusion to female personnel. He added that female cadets and female soldiers should look at the women who don’t fall into that collaboration trap as positive examples.

Cadet Alex Panosian, a senior at the academy, presented some of the findings from research he had conducted into how vocabulary affects gender attitudes at West Point. Examining the word “trou” — a derogatory term created to describe how female cadets looked in their uniforms after they were first admitted in 1976 — Panosian said that while younger male and female cadets he had interviewed identified the word as more of a joke, upperclassmen attached more significance to it. He explained that by its definition and use, trou implies that the female cadet is overweight, unattractive and lazy — which he found affected some female cadets’ eating habits. Half of the female cadets he interviewed reported hearing the term several times per day and that it created in older cadets a “sense of other,” or a distinct separation between males and females enrolled in the corps of cadets.

As an outsider to the military establishment, Benedict’s work may always be viewed by some with a degree of skepticism, but several speakers — including an active-duty lieutenant colonel and a retired brigadier general, both female — supported her claims that gender division is a cultural phenomenon rooted deep within the military establishment. Part of that, said retired Brig. Gen. Rebecca Halstead — a 1981 West Point graduate — can be seen in the military’s policy excluding women from combat. That policy is currently under review.

“It’s OK to be with the team, but it isn’t OK to be on the team,” she said. “I think that leaders have a responsibility to make policy that reflects reality. If someone wants to serve their nation, let them serve their nation.”

While Benedict’s book relates several long, cheerless tales of women who had suffered severely within military culture, she offered advice to students as to how they could change that structure.

“You have to decide what kind of a leader you want to be,” she said. “When you hear of wrongdoing, will you be one of those officers who protects your career by turning a blind eye, or will you speak up and protect your subordinates? The answer seems easy from afar, but you’re entering a highly competitive structure.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Ben Preston
Ben Preston is a 2011 graduate of the masters in journalism program at Columbia University. Before that, he was a staff reporter for the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based news website, Noozhawk.com, and has covered Western water and forest issues as well as local and state politics. In 2009, he traveled to Iraq to cover the U.S. Army 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, which was running reconstruction programs in Baghdad.

More From Ben Preston

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


Follow us


How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.