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What can stop sexual harassment in the U.S. military?

Here’s what my research suggests.

- July 13, 2020

Before U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén disappeared from a Texas military base on April 22, she told her family that she was being sexually harassed but was too afraid to report it. In the months that followed, Guillén’s family criticized military officials at Fort Hood for not making a greater effort to find the missing 20-year-old soldier until pressure from the media, protesters and congressional lawmakers forced them to investigate.

The military stepped up its investigation into Guillén’s disappearance, leading to the discovery and identification of her remains in early July, and has finally acknowledged that she may have been harassed, although it maintains that the harassment was not sexual and was not carried out by the primary suspect in her death. My research suggests that this is related to a deep problem in the military with sexual harassment — reflecting a military bureaucracy that does little to assist victims of harassment and abuse.

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From 2014 to 2019, I conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with 43 servicewomen in the Air Force, the Army, the Marines and the Navy. Following qualitative inductive methods, I developed a list of topics to cover but treated the interviews like guided conversations. I asked broad questions to elicit vivid description. Their narratives often touched on sexual, racial and bureaucratic harassment.

What is bureaucratic harassment?

Ninety-two percent of the women I interviewed said they had been sexually harassed while in the military. More than one-third of them experienced what I call “bureaucratic harassment”: the active manipulation of rules and policies to undermine women’s careers, reduce women’s power in the workplace, retaliate against women for rejecting sexual advances and prevent them from reporting sexual abuse.

Bureaucratic harassment has long-term consequences. Several of the women I interviewed were issued quite a few citations for small and nonexistent “infractions” that delayed their promotions. Similarly, commanding officers’ negative performance evaluations kept women at lower ranks, where they earned less money and had less power in the military hierarchy.

Bureaucratic harassment can be used to force women out of the military and can affect them after they leave, including through the loss of post-service benefits. Here’s an example: Women who are hospitalized for trauma stemming from rape may be classified as having a preexisting mental health issue. In one case, this classification resulted in a veteran being unable to receive medical benefits from the military after her service.

Knowing that military bureaucracy is used to punish women personally and professionally, it becomes clearer why Guillén may have feared reporting harassment. Most women I interviewed did not report harassment and, like Guillén, developed individual strategies for managing mistreatment.

The military culture perpetuates harassment

Despite programs aimed at preventing harassment, the military is infused with a gendered culture throughout training, deployment and on bases that influences how women are treated. My research suggests that the military encourages a warrior masculinity that denigrates women. Commanders and peers labeled women using misogynistic slurs. One woman asked her commander about a promotion and was told: “You’re just here as a bed warmer.”

My interviews also revealed that taunts directed at women contained racial elements, including hyper-sexualization and devaluation of Latinas. Scholars find that these attitudes contribute to the high levels of military sexual harassment.

Moreover, women described living on military bases as being in “a state of constant surveillance” by men, who manipulated the military’s blend of work, social and personal space to monitor and harm them. One woman said men congregated outside her door, whispering, “The female lives here.” Another lamented, “You don’t have a reprieve at the end of the day because you live with them, too.” Others said men harassed them through social media before they even arrived at their duty stations. Constant harassment and the inability to escape makes reporting more difficult. Black and Latina women are overrepresented in the enlisted corps, making them especially vulnerable.

It gets worse for women who try to report. One woman reported a cadet for sending her pornography and was subsequently told by her peers, “If I was ever shot down in Afghanistan, they would let me die … that they wouldn’t save me.” In response to standing up to sexual harassment, she was portrayed as an enemy in a hypothetical combat situation. The message women received was to accept sexual harassment as a part of their service or be considered enemies if they report.

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More bureaucracy does not resolve the problem

Almost every time military sexual harassment and assault hits the news, the military’s response is to create more policies to punish these actions. For instance, after a 2019 Defense Department report that revealed a 40 percent increase in reports of sexual assault and a correlation between harassment and assault, the acting defense secretary at the time, Patrick Shanahan, called for criminalizing sexual harassment in response.

This approach ignores how aspects of military culture and a rampant misuse of bureaucracy enable sexual harassment. Although policies aimed at decreasing and even criminalizing sexual harassment might reprimand some perpetrators, others will inevitably find ways to subvert or ignore these rules so as to render them ineffective. My research suggests that the military still struggles with this issue — even after a decade of concentrated efforts to prevent sexual assault — because it ignores the military’s gendered culture and habitually demeaning interactions.

If the military wishes to protect women, it might be more successful if it works to challenge a military culture that denigrates women and supports sexism, harassment and assault. That could begin with removing hyper-sexualized and misogynistic decor and signage and discouraging harassing language, jokes and cadences — having officers actively interrupt sexist conversations and engage victims rather than dismiss them.

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Stephanie Bonnes (@BonnesStephanie) is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven.