WASHINGTON — Nearly a decade into the Pentagon’s efforts to stop sexual assault and harassment in the military, some parts of the armed services still allow — and even encourage — the kind of anti-woman sentiment that directly contradicts the Defense Department’s oft-cited “zero tolerance” policy, a range of servicemembers and victims’ advocates assert.
The attitudes are revealed not just in barracks rooms and on battlefields, but in workplaces and on social media sites, where women’s comments and photos are met with sexist epithets, calls for naked self-portraits and discussions of whether they are attractive enough to urinate on or sexually assault with various military-related gear. While top brass has demanded change, recent arrests and scandals illustrate just how far the problem reaches.
This month alone, at least five commanders or sexual assault prevention representatives have been accused of or charged with misconduct.
In the latest case to become public, a sergeant first class at the United States Military Academy at West Point is accused of videotaping female cadets without their consent, sometimes in the shower.
Paula Coughlin, who pushed the 1991 Tailhook sexual assault scandal into the public eye when she told her story of being sexually assaulted during the Navy aviation convention, said she believes women serving in today’s military may have to endure more than the women who served in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“It comes down to archaic attitudes held by current leadership,” said Coughlin, who is now a board member for the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
“There are good people in the military who want that old attitude to go away,” she said, but the establishment “is clinging to traditions that are really now undermining the whole mission.”
Those traditions can run the gamut from songs and cadences that celebrate rape and violence against women to nicknames like “WM,” a term that can mean both “woman Marine” or “walking mattress.”
Delilah Rumburg, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape/National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said research shows that social norms “that oppress and objectify women, value the use of power over others, tolerate violence and victim-blaming, support traditional views of masculinity as dominant and controlling and foster secrecy around individual or family matters all contribute to an environment where sexual violence can occur.”
If a workplace allows misogynistic comments, she said, it sends a message that other forms of sexual violence — to include sexual harassment, cyberbullying and even rape — will be tolerated.
Phillip Carter, director of the Center for a New American Security’s Military, Veterans and Society Program and a former military police and civil affairs officer in the Army, said a testosterone-charged culture is to be expected in any organization of young, athletic men, but that leaders must focus that energy in positive ways.
“The military gives an elite status to the infantry in part because it had to in order to incentivize people to serve there,” Carter said. The Army gives infantry soldiers a blue cord to wear with their uniform to show their status and “encourages a certain amount of pride and chest-thumping.”
There is also some rivalry between services and between specialties in the services, Carter said — the feeling that, for instance, “anyone who’s not at the tip of the spear is, in their view, a little bit less of a Marine.”
Carter said he countered some of the rivalry by focusing on team-building, “so that the men in our units would see themselves as on the same team as the women in their units.”
Carter also expected women “to shoot as well, run as far and do everything they were required to do, regardless of their sex.
“Different standards contribute to tension within the ranks, and allowing women into combat will only succeed to the extent that everyone is held to the same standard,” he said.
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network, said that different standards for men and women mean that the military “not only allows discrimination, it celebrates it. You can’t expect widespread change if you’ve got larger institutional dysfunction happening,” she said.
Bhagwati, a former Marine captain, said she committed “career suicide” by reporting a fellow officer for sexual harassment. The man was promoted during the investigation. “I don’t think the military creates sexual offenders, but it definitely condones their behavior,” Bhagwati said. “They use tactics to prey upon their victims and to ensure that their victims are blamed for their own attacks in the end. It’s not like they wake up one day and decide to rape someone. … It’s a calculated series of moves.”
While men and women within the armed forces acknowledge that sexist words and ideas thrive in many units, some servicemembers who engage in the type of speech that is prohibited by military regulations bristle at the suggestion that their behavior is inappropriate.
Followers of sites that revel in posting photos of fellow Marines and soldiers — then encouraging followers to mock and harass them — say infantrymen are expected to kill and face death, so they must be allowed to let off steam by making jokes or comments that others may find offensive. In short, they argue, political correctness is killing the warrior culture.
Carter said veterans complaining that things are no longer the same in today’s military is as old as the military itself.
He said the military “would lose something if it destroyed the privileged place of the infantry and the esprit de corps that combat arms soldiers feel,” but that leaders can channel it into more positive places — such as physical training and the mission at hand.
Coughlin said that in her experience, many military leaders don’t even see the problem with using sexist language in work settings, “but that’s what their bosses do.” To change the culture, she said, the Pentagon must start at the top.
Bhagwati said change requires moral leadership — from men and women. “It’s not about your gender. It’s about empathizing with another human being who’s suffering,” she said, “and that’s not something the military teaches.”
Recruiting and retaining more women in the military will help reduce sexual violence against women and men, she said, adding that opening up more assignments for women will also help.
While equal opportunity rules mean that servicemembers who are found to have discriminated against another should be held responsible by their commander, Bhagwati said giving servicemembers access to the civil court system would provide a more powerful deterrent.
Certainly, Rumburg said, sexual violence “is an endemic and epidemic social problem in our nation.” But, she said, social norms can be magnified in the military.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the top military leaders met with President Barack Obama to discuss the escalating sexual assault crisis in the military and said afterward that military leaders are disappointed, embarrassed and have, “in many ways, failed” to stop sexual assault. Still, he said, “We’re going to fix the problem.”