Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I told my mentee, a 14-year-old girl at Twain Middle School, that it celebrates women’s equality in work, education, and healthcare–but I don’t really believe that.
Honestly, I’m not sure how many people read this blog often or at all. But amid the flurry of reporting on sexual violence in the military (here and here, for instance), I too notice a bizarre dual reality in the military’s treatment of women. As the wife of a female officer candidate at Fort Sam Houston and as a thinking human being, I’ve made a few observations.
1. I am not talkative. I talk about politics even less. But if I make even a passing mention of the fact that the military’s unequal treatment of same-sex partners is unfair, I get shushed. The implication is that we’ve won the right to not get fired, now shut up about it.
2. Despite complaints, soldiers with a history of harassing women or abusing a position of power are slow to face consequences. Almost any servicemember has a story about this.
3. As one friend pointed out, women who report an incident are moved elsewhere–not the offender. This makes little practical sense because the survivor must reestablish social connections in a new location at a time when existing connections are the most important.
4. A few months ago, the base conducted a mandatory training on sexual violence. Most of the soldiers cracked jokes or studied throughout the talk, but to the few who listened, the presenter confidently announced, “In a few years we will have eradicated sexual violence in the military.” No wonder no one took him seriously.
As a survivor of sexual assault and harassment, I understand context. Specifically, that there is never a convenient or safe time to tell the truth. Also that a pervasive blame-the-victim attitude makes it frightening to come forward, because almost inevitably, more scrutiny falls on the woman’s behavior than the man’s. The perverse result is that the survivor feels more ashamed of the truth than her rapist.
That’s why the military needs to be serious about its protection of whistleblowers; for instance, setting aside the automatic punishment of officer-enlistee fraternization, guaranteeing a serious review of every case, and putting the decision in the hands of people sensitive to the nuances of sexual violence. Some of these measures are already in process, but if the naive, we-can-eradicate-it! attitude prevails while women are still regularly being assaulted, those measures aren’t worth a dime.
Culturally, the military resists change because it sees itself as different from civil society–tougher, manlier, more stoic, cabalistic, whatever. I don’t buy it. A warrior myth will help you on the battlefield, but the rest of the time, we’re Americans–our soldiers aren’t Spartans, Romans, or Janissaries, but men and women from down the street who make a living doing almost everything civilians do; from cooking food, to treating patients, to fixing boat engines, to payroll. The people who fill these jobs are contiguous with the society they protect, and they don’t deserve to be treated like the spoils of war behind their own lines.
As an employer of probably the widest cross-section of American society, the military needs to listen. It’s simple: If you serve to protect life, liberty, and happiness, tolerating rape and discrimination is indefensible. Values and issues outside the military have a place inside it, too. A better process for taking care of servicemembers is essential, and just as important is an unwillingness to tolerate violence and bigotry among peers–and perhaps the argument can be made that the latter is even better, because intervention by peers happens more often and more effectively than a chain-of-command response. Either way, until women who choose to wear the uniform are entitled to the same civil justice as everyone else, no, we won’t shut up about it. Why should we?