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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.”

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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.

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