I was in the Navy when the Tailhook scandal broke back in 1991. We received training briefs ad nauseum about how we should treat female sailors. We couldn’t say suggestive things or make inappropriate gestures, and we had to make sure we did not engage in any sort of physical contact that would be construed as making an advance.
I remember thinking the whole time how obvious all of this was. I remember thinking that anyone should know you don’t treat women certain ways. Not just military women, but anywhere.
Apparently my thinking was the minority. Or so it seems considering that, twenty years later, we are still having redundant issues with sexual harassment and assault in the military ranks. What is worse, the people who are supposed to be implementing these changes and protecting service members are themselves guilty of the very things they are charged with stopping.
Perhaps part of the problem is the warrior culture that has always existed in military ranks. Since the days of rocks and sharpened sticks, the strongest of one group always tested themselves against the strongest of the other. These same strongmen were then the ones most desired by the females of the tribe, as they were seen as best able to protect a pregnant woman and her children. So strength became very closely tied to virility. This very quickly gave rise to victorious groups of warriors taking women of defeated groups, either temporarily by raping them or permanently by taking them into the victor’s group as trophies.
Now we fast forward several thousand years. Women are no longer the helpless dependents of the war chiefs. They are (in theory if not always practice) equal citizens in society and the workplace. This is even happening in the US military as restrictions on any remaining combat assignments are to be lifted by the Pentagon in the next couple years.
However, the power struggle that is sexual harassment and sexual assault still lingers. As of 2011, our military force had a rough total of 203,000 women, or a mere 14.5% of the total 1.4 million members. As a matter of scale, in a working group of 20 that would be only 2 or 3 women. Additionally, there are only 16.6% of women in the officer corps. So if a woman is a victim of sexual assault, it is extremely likely she will have to report the incident to a male. Very often the assault is by a service member who is in the direct chain of command. This is one of the reasons that only about 10% of military sexual assaults are reported. More often, the victims will suffer in silence because they very rarely feel safe confiding the events.
During the Tailhook scandal, an unsympathetic attitude toward sexual assault was revealed. Lieutenant Gary Mandich, who was one of the many attendees and alleged participants in the lewd activities, told media, “Everyone needs to seriously lighten up. What do they expect? This is Vegas baby! They call this symposium “Tail” hook for a reason!” Rear Admiral (RDML) Williams made sexist remarks in Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) Barbara S. Pope’s presence, most notably a comment that he believed that “a lot of female navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers or hookers”.
The event itself, brought to light by then Lt. Paula Couglhin, was described as a “”gauntlet” of fellow Navy and Marine aviators that women were forced to go through. Many of these women were also military members, and all were allegedly groped and/or had their clothes attempted to be taken off with varying degrees of success. The morning after the gauntlet, Ms. Coughlin said, she talked with her superior, Rear Adm. Jack Snyder, at breakfast about the incident. He replied, she recounted, “Well, that’s what you get for going down a hallway of a bunch of drunken aviators.”
It is bad enough that so many officers who are also supposed to be “gentlemen” behaved in such a horrible manner. But to perpetrate these acts on fellow service members is especially repugnant. In the military, a situation could arise at almost any time where a fellow service member could be responsible for saving your life. So what justification is there for treating your comrade in arms in such a primitive and base way?
So again, here we are twenty years later. And statistically, more sexual assaults are happening than before. Even more heinous, as I previously mentioned, the very persons placed in charge of preventing these acts are offenders themselves.
Public perception is not helping matters. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, a majority (54%) say instances of sexual assaults in the military represent individual acts of misconduct, while 40% believe they result from underlying problems in the military’s culture. I wonder how the respondents would have felt about it if they knew that over 11% of women in the military had been a victim of sexual assault. Certainly not as isolated incidents.
There is now a call by Senator Kirsten Gillebrand to remove the reporting and prosecution of sexual assault out of the regular chain of command to an independent regulatory body. While I am not comfortable taking away the process of complaint and redress through the chain of command, twenty plus years of scandal after scandal indicates this may be the only way to break the “old boy network” of protection that seems to exist throughout the military ranks.
Whatever the changes are, they need to happen soon. If we can’t even protect our own service members from sexual predators, how can our fighting force work together and trust each other in times of danger?