Does Spiraling Sex Abuse Mean Gender Integration in the Military Has Failed?

May 8, 2013

Usually when I blog here, I argue for something with great confidence and bluster. This time I'm just posing a question -- an uncomfortable question, but one that I'm amazed no one else seems to be asking. There's a vast sex abuse crisis in the U. S. military, with incident rates skyrocketing year to year. Might this mean that America's great experiment in creating a gender-neutral military has failed?

I'm not suggesting that the abuse crisis demonstrates that women are incapable of serving alongside men. Far from it. No, I'm wondering whether this crisis reveals that military men (or at least a significant fraction among them) are unfit to serve alongside women. Consider what military training does for a young man. Now consider what military training does to him. It hones a young man to a very high level of physical fitness, imparts a chilling mastery of ways to impose his will by force (including the sort of hand-to-hand combat training that thirty years ago was shared only with commandos), and applies sophisticated psychological techniques to help ensure that when the time for the use of force presents itself, the service member will use that force instantly and with little compunction.

Today's American service members, male and female, are arguably the best-trained and most broadly skilled fighters any regime has fielded since the days of Sparta. Still, states have been training military personnel along roughly similar lines for millennia, and until the twentieth century it had occurred to scarcely anyone to let military men at the peak of their training mix continuously with members of the opposite sex. Maybe -- just maybe -- the current sex abuse scandal offers evidence that all those commanders of centuries past actually knew what they were doing. Maybe young males elevated to high levels of physical readiness and deeply conditioned to use ruthless force just aren't safe to carry on their potentially deadly work side-by-side with service members who are natural objects of their sexual desire. It isn't necessary that all military men display this defect -- only that it be likely that enough young military males will display the defect to make a truly co-ed armed force impractical. (In this connection it doesn't matter whether abusive sexual behavior is understood to be motivated by sexual desire or by a desire for forcible mastery; the military milieu provides a setting equally reinforcing for either.)

Today the U. S. military is on the cusp of integrating women fully into combat positions. But I wonder whether the current sex abuse scandal is not equivalent to an experimental result indicating that our reigning hypothesis that the military should be gender-neutral is fatally flawed. Until recently, militaries sought almost unanimously to ensure that most fighting men discharged most of their duties in environments from which persons who might stimulate their libidos were excluded. Was this because the presence of objects of desire would distract them? Or was it because when large numbers of young men are assembled and trained mentally and physically in the way the military does, it's just not safe for women to be around some of them?

To reduce it to a sound bite, is gender neutrality a bad idea for the military -- not because women can't hack it, but because so many men are such pigs, and military training just makes them worse?


#1 dbrower (Guest) on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 9:21am

I’d say it means the military has a leadership problem and hasn’t learned how to train members to not sexually assault each other, and failed to enforce discipline on those who do.

It is awkward to try to lump recent recipients of Sgt Hartman-like training with a full Colonel in a leadership position. 


#2 fodigg (Guest) on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 9:57am

I think it’s wrong to lay the blame at “men” or even “soldiers” when it could so readily be an issue with the way this particular organization handles itself.

#3 Jennifer Beahan on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 9:43am


#4 Stacy (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 11:29am

A pointed and provocative question.

It amazes me that feminists sometimes get accused of hating men. Feminists actually think a great deal of men—we believe they are capable of not behaving like pigs. And so we do things like fight for inclusion in male-dominated spaces.

I think the answer to your question is, “No—but we still have a long way to go to make rape and sexual harassment truly socially unacceptable.” After all, it isn’t just the military. Look at how rarely rape is reported, and the low rate of successful prosecution. Look at Steubenville.

The solution must include men themselves refusing to tolerate attitudes and behavior that demeans women and normalizes rape.

#5 M. A. Melby on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 1:19pm

You’ve got it slightly wrong historically. Women have served with men, especially as support staff, but also in leadership positions - in the military.

The Landsknecht is a good example. It’s a very well-known mercenary group. Women traveled with them as support staff - wives as well as general support staff - doing all sorts of tasks such as cooking and wearing big hats (which won them a battle once, because the enemy assumed that everyone with a big hat was a soldier and surrendered.) The point is - they camped together.

I don’t think there is more rape in the military because there are more women. It’s just now the women being raped are military women (and men) and not other people who happen to be around.

The fact that there are women in the military now; who carry the privilege of being considered military personnel; is shining a light on something that most probably already existed and may possibly be a means of addressing it, however unpleasant.

Also - increasing numbers? Does you mean increasing REPORTS? There is a difference.

Rape against a fellow service member is treason. Pure and simple. Frame it in that way - the same way and you would frame turning around and shooting your fellow soldier with a weapon - and that may help.

Oh yeah - and FIRE “Xe” i.e. Blackwater. I think you might have it wrong about what actual military training does; the “independent contractors” that we hire do not have the benefit of that training and they do not have a good reputation in this regard.

#6 David (Guest) on Saturday May 11, 2013 at 1:23pm

Is there a way of psychologically testing military men for predisposition toward sexual assault?

#7 A Hermit on Wednesday May 22, 2013 at 9:47am

As a point of interest; the Canadian forces commissioned a study to look into the effect on morale etc of the decision to lift restrictions on homosexuals serving. One of the effects appears to be a steep decline in the incidence of sexual assault/harassment in the ranks of the Canadian Forces.

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