When it was reported in March that a Facebook group of some 30,000 members of the Marine Corps have been sharing nonconsensual nude photographs of female marines, it echoed all the other sexual abuse scandals in the military, stretching way back to Vietnam. The difference was that the perpetrators in this case used social media to spread the abuse beyond individual platoons to an audience of thousands.
In 2009, I wrote The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq based on several years of interviews with female war veterans. In it, I exposed that, along with combat trauma and the expected horrors of war, military women were also being sexually assaulted by their so-called comrades at a rate of nearly thirty percent, while ninety percent were being harassed.
Lynn Hall has recently written a memoir about her time the Air Force, Caged Eyes, which shows the same culture of brutal misogyny among officer cadets at the Air Force Academy. Indeed, surveys have long shown that no branch of the military is free of the rape culture revealed in this latest scandal.
The main reason men harass and assault women like this is to make women feel unwelcome and to make themselves feel more important. The message of all harassment, whether online or not, is to say, “We don’t want you here.”
Thus, what needs to change is not only the rules, the education and the punishments, as most leaders and politicians insist. What needs to change is the fundamental attitude toward women in the military from the top down. Every military leader, from general to sergeant, has to understand that the military can no longer be a culture which values the male more than the female. Anyone who doesn’t accept this no longer belongs in the military.
What follows is an excerpt from Lynn K. Hall’s Caged Eyes. In this passage, Hall gives us a picture of the persistent misogyny she and her other women classmates faced in the classroom at the Air Force Academy. During a military history lecture, male cadets get away with insulting the women with sexist name-calling and prejudiced claims that women aren’t fit to be in the military. This is a blatant example of the attitude toward women in the military that Benedict says needs to change.
One morning a few weeks into the academic year, I sat in the back of my military history classroom opening my notebook in preparation for the day’s lecture. My professor, a blond, gangly pilot who had graduated from a civilian college’s Reserve Ofﬁcers’ Training Corps, turned on a projector from the center of the darkened classroom. At a table one row ahead of me, two sophomores discussed the four degree women in their squadron. “They’re so fucking weak,” the bigger, taller one complained.
“I’m sick of them breaking every ﬁve minutes,” the other one agreed. By “breaking” he meant failing to do exercises like push-ups without looking pathetic.
“Fucking dogs,” the bigger guy said. All ﬁfteen students, including the only other woman, stopped talking to listen to the loud conversation. I had never heard upperclassmen disparage women so blatantly.
There were other things said about us women, we noticed. A few of my classmates overheard a conversation during which the senior cadets divided four degree women into two categories: dykes or sluts. I was a dyke, they said. Jo was a slut. It seemed they made the distinction based on how girly we acted, whether we wore makeup or not. One of the women shrugged off the comments by saying the same labels were given to women in other parts of the military, too. “You can’t win,” she had concluded.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t let females become cadets,” the bigger cadet said. I twisted my head back to our professor, but he didn’t respond. I had become acquainted with him from visiting his ofﬁce for extra help with assignments. He took interest in my professional well-being, and I sensed he engaged similarly with many students.
“I’m serious,” the bigger cadet argued. “They don’t deserve to be here. We’re supposed to be the best of the best and all that crap.”
“And having women here makes that less so?” the professor asked.
“If you dealt with the shit from them that we do on a daily basis, you’d understand.”
“Some of my most competent fellow pilots have been women.”
“I doubt that. There are so many reasons why that’s a load of shit.”
“Really? Enlighten me.”
The cadet stood and strode to a section of the freshly cleaned white board that wrapped around the darkened room. Picking up a black marker, he began writing a numbered list—as though he was reciting memorized knowledge. As he wrote, he read out loud:
- They’re less intelligent.
Less intelligent? I balked. That was bullshit. But no one said anything. I dropped my head and started drawing blue pyramids along the border of my notebook. The cadet continued his sloppy writing:
- They’re physically weak and lack upper-body strength.
- Their emotion overrides all logic.
- They can’t keep their legs shut.
- They serve no purpose in the military if they can’t go into direct combat.
The cadet popped the cap back on the marker and tossed it in the tray. When I looked up from my blue boxes, my professor glanced toward me and then to the other woman with surprised, apologetic eyes. Would he say something? Anything? After several long seconds, he turned toward the projector. “Let’s start class,” he said. He clicked open the PowerPoint presentation and began.
The list was crap. While I didn’t think that many of the class’s other men agreed with the assessment that we were unintelligent, weak, emotional sluts, their silence, and that no one bothered to erase the board, spoke louder than the list itself.
About the Authors
Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written frequently on women, race, and justice. Her books include Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes and the novels The Opposite of Love, The Sailor's Wife, Bad Angel, A World Like This, Sand Queen and the forthcoming Wolf Season. Her work on soldiers won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. Follow her on Twitter at @helenbenedict and visit her website.
Lynn Hall is a memoirist, essayist, and activist in the movement to end sexual violence. She is also a mountaineer who has summited each of Colorado’s 14,000-foot-tall peaks and a runner who has completed a 100-mile ultramarathon. She lives in Boulder. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.