From Dismay to Anger
Joanna Bourke reflects on the devastating conclusions of a report by the Defense Committee (25 July 2021) entitled ‘Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life’.
‘God help’ women and members of minoritised communities serving in the British Armed Forces who seek justice after being harassed, bullied, discriminated against, or sexually assaulted.
This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from a devastating report released on 25 July 2021 by the House of Commons Defense Committee. Entitled ‘Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life’, the Committee heard from more than 4,000 female service personnel and female veterans. Nine per cent of women currently serving in the Regulars spoke about their experiences. In an unprecedented move, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace gave permission for service personnel to give evidence in a public enquiry. This makes the survey the largest consultation of female service personnel and veterans ever undertaken in the UK.
The results are truly shocking, with 62 per of female service personnel and veterans reporting bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Eleven per cent of women in the Regulars said that they had experienced sexual harassment in a Service environment in the previous 12 months. Even the Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter admits that the Armed Forces are plagued by a ‘laddish culture’.
Abuse is never acceptable. But the Committee also addresses problems associated with the most basic aspects of military life for women. For example, uniforms are ill-fitting as are helmets; body armour and combat equipment have been designed for male body-shapes; tampons and other sanitary products are difficult if not impossible to access (meaning that women resort to using socks or paper, leading to infections); and limited systems for urination means that women sometimes deliberately dehydrated themselves. At every level, serving women are discriminated against. According to one statistic, it will take decades – some say 300 years – to ‘improve women’s presence among senior officers’.
High levels of harassment, bullying, discrimination, and abuse are not unique to the British armed forces, of course. I documented identical issues in relation to the U.S. forces. One of the most heart-rending statements I read was made by a woman who had served in Iraq. She observed that her fellow servicewomen ‘don’t have to worry about enemy fire. They have to be worried about the guy that’s next to them…. he becomes like public enemy number one for them’.
But the British armed forces contend that they are superior to their U.S. equivalents in their treatment of its members. This report completely undermines such claims.
For the past three years, the Wellcome-Trust funded SHaME project (Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters) has documented the formidable barriers that victims of sexual abuse and other harms face in civilian contexts. These include not being believed, having their pain minimized, and deliberate attempts to silence them.
But victim-survivors in the military are vulnerable to additional, military-specific obstacles to reporting their abuse, being believed, and receiving justice. One of the main problems involves the ‘chain of command’. The people to whom victims are required to report abuse are their senior officers, most of whom are not trained in the law and have been deeply socialized into military cultures that are dismissive of such complaints. In the majority of cases, the perpetrator is of higher rank than the victim – indeed, in some instances, the people to whom victim-survivors are supposed to report their abuse is the perpetrator. It is common for victim-survivors to be required to continue living and working closely with their abusers.
Reporting abuse is formidably difficult. Every servicewoman knows that it risks harming her career: ‘collateral damage’, in other words. Three quarters of those who have made a complaint suffer negative consequences as a result. Even worse, over 90 per cent of those who complain consider leaving the services altogether as a result, or are made to feel uncomfortable at work or humiliated. Crucially, complainants are seen as breaking the ‘warrior code’, lowering morale, and bringing the Service into disrepute. In a workplace that valorizes group cohesion, obedience, loyalty, and stoicism, ostracism is a powerful inhibitor of speaking out against fellow ‘brother-in-arms’. The fact that women have been admitted to close combat roles only since 2018 creates additional strains: after all, combatant services have a very long and virulent history of hostility to the presence of women. Complaining about sexual assault and harassment is not only deemed to weaken unit cohesion (a classic case of blaming victims) but is also used in arguments about female unsuitability for the job.
In other words, unit cohesion as well as the need to perform tough, ‘warrior’ roles make any admission of vulnerability dangerous. In particular, victims of sexual assault in the military are regarded as the embodiment of weaker femininity. Obviously, this assumption is strongly resented and resisted by servicewomen, all of whom have chosen to enlist. Their identity as female members of a ‘warrior caste’ forces upon them the notion of agency: they are young, active, and strong. The issue of female agency is routinely used in civilian court cases to argue that women are un-rapeable: this assumption is even more potent when the victim is a fit, combat-trained military woman. They become responsible for their own victimisation.
British servicewomen and veterans also told the Committee that the chances of justice are abysmally low. This is well-known. Seventy per cent of those who make a complaint of a sexual nature are dissatisfied by the outcome. In particular, they observe the degree to which their protests are ignored or belittled. Forty per cent of female Service personnel rate the complaints procedures as ‘extremely poor’. This helps explain why nearly 90 per cent of female and male personnel don’t even bother reporting instances of bullying, harassment, or discrimination. As a consequence, official statistics must be viewed as gross under-estimates of the problem.
In the fight for justice, victims of abuses are expected to adhere to ‘chains of command’. For example, if both the victim and perpetrator of a sexual offence are serving members of the Service, the case is normally heard by the Service Justice System (SJS). The Service Police and medics may not, however, have sufficient experience in dealing with such cases. There are considerable incentives for the SJS to downgrade assaults and deal with them in ways that minimise the harms inflicted and maximise Service needs, such as cohesion and morale. Commanding officers are accused of being reluctant to report serious sexual crimes to the police, even though they are obliged to do so.
The impact of the abuse, compounded by the perceived lack of access to adequate systems of justice, means that women are often left feeling psychologically damaged, traumatised, and resentful. They are leaving the Armed Forces in droves. And, as this Report documents, discrimination in provisions and services continues even after they have left the armed forces.
What about male victims? They are acknowledged in the Report but only briefly. This is not surprising since they are a small minority of those who experience such harms. In 2021, only one per cent of men in the Regular Armed Services said that they had experienced sexual harassment in a Service environment in the previous 12 months.
However, people concerned about the state of the British military might do well to reflect on research from the U.S. where there is evidence that the sexual abuse of men in the armed forces has effects as devastating as those on women. According to one study, 65 percent of service men who had been sexually assaulted developed symptoms of PTSD compared to 39 percent of men who experienced trauma associated with combat. Abused servicemen have to deal with issues of masculinity and sexual orientation (that is, the idea that men who are raped must be homosexual – a vicious slur in the largely homophobic military culture). Rape myths (such as the one that men – and especially not hyper-fit military men – don’t get sexually assaulted) makes it particularly stunning and stigmatizing for male victims. High levels of shame means that male victim-survivors are more likely than their female counterparts to conceal the reasons for their trauma and delay seeking treatment. Instead of getting help, male veterans often respond to their abuse by espousing a heightened masculinity, including multiple female sexual partners, aggressive behaviours, and extreme body-building. Male victims feel feminized, stigmatized, and cast out of the warrior fraternity.
All of the harms of being harassed, bullied, discriminated against, or sexually assaulted are both higher and worse for minoritized communities, such as BME personnel. Sexual minorities also experience greater harms. The report does not mention the experiences of transgender service-personnel who encounter specific problems due to the stigma attached to being transgender in the military, as well as (legitimate) fears about being denied hormone treatment should they disclose having been abused.
Although ‘Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life’ makes for very glum reading (I have not read anything so depressing in a long time), the authors do admit that there have been some improvements in recent times. For example, the RAF fares slightly better than the other Services, in part because they are a ‘younger’ force and require more technologically skilled personnel. More attention is also being paid to Flexible Service, childcare, and the provision of helplines. But the disjuncture between ‘paper’ provisions and ‘on the ground’ facts is glaring. The best that can be said is that progress is ‘glacial’. Senior military personnel are failing in their responsibility to protect and empower everyone under their command.
One of the Committee’s findings is particularly surprising. It shows that a significant majority of women in the Armed Forces have experienced bullying, harassment, discrimination, and sexual abuse. However, nearly nine in ten also state that they would be willing to recommend the job to other women. How can this tension be reconciled? Perhaps women who enter the military have particularly high levels of commitment to the values of the Forces, which override their own interests. Maybe they believe that the advantages in terms of job security and training outweigh the hurt of discrimination and abuse. Do they simply accept that the world is not a “fair” place for women since they might also be subjected to abuse in civilian jobs as well? Or perhaps they have internalized some of the values of the military and see abuse as something they have to ‘suck up’ in order to belong. This latter explanation is given weight by the Committee’s observation that some of the language used by personnel (including some senior women) giving evidence implies that Servicewomen need to demonstrate that they are ‘tough enough to handle it’. If this is the case (and I think it is), the Report should incite anger as much as dismay.