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Why we need to talk about sexual violence in the military

The BBC’s Panorama recently reported on a series of cover-ups regarding historical sex abuse in Britain’s Cadet Forces. The abuse involved was shocking, but consistent with the unfolding national scandal. Paedophiles have been exposed in politics, the clergy, football coaching and the BBC – why should we expect the military to be any different?

But there is a broader issue that isn’t being widely talked about. And that is sexual violence and harassment against both male and female personnel within the ranks of the adult military. This is despite the Deepcut scandal involving the deaths of four soldiers at Princess Royal Barracks, Surrey, between 1995 and 2002, and the suicide of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement in 2011, following her allegation of rape at an army barracks in Sennelager in Germany. Two male soldiers were cleared of the charge at an army tribunal in April 2016.

The families of the four young soldiers found dead at Deepcut Barracks between 1995 and 2002. A coroner ruled in one death that there was a ‘sexualised’ atmosphere at the barracks. PA, CC BY-SA

A well-known problem

Following a number of these high-profile sexual harassment cases and media revelations, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) published a report in 2006 suggesting that sexualised behaviour against female personnel was common in the Armed Forces. It revealed that 99% reported experiencing sexually explicit jokes, stories, language or material of a sexual nature in the past year. Inappropriate sexual behaviour directed towards an individual was also common, with 67% of female service personnel experiencing anything from unwelcome comments to sexual assault.

The UK Equal Opportunities Commission decided in 2008 that the Ministry of Defence had managed to effectively tackle sexual harassment with new policies and procedures. But reports published nine years later, suggest sexual harassment is still a problem, and not just for female service personnel.

Surveys from both the Army and the Royal Navy and Royal Marines in 2015 reported that 90% of all service personnel surveyed had experienced sexualised behaviours in the past year. Around 2-4% reported an upsetting experience or sexual assault.

What is most concerning in these reports is the lack of trust in the official complaints process, often due to a fear of repercussions and negative effects on their careers if they reported those responsible.

We might expect these reports and renewed media coverage would shine a light on the issue. However, there remains a significant lack of political focus and academic research exploring sexual violence in the UK Armed Forces.

This is not the case in the US, where sexual violence in the military has been recognised as a major political issue. US academics have built up a large body of research investigating the prevalence and consequences of what they term Military Sexual Trauma.

Male servicemen are also affected by sexual harassment and assault in the British Armed Forces. PA, CC BY-SA

Political debate

In contrast to the UK, the US has seen fervent media and political debate on Military Sexual Trauma, driven in part by a number of high-profile scandals. The most recent of which, where US Marines were found to have routinely shared compromising photographs of female colleagues, was reported internationally.

In the US, the political response to historical scandals was the establishment in 2005 of the US Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. This office is responsible for the coordination and development of policies and, importantly, a periodic survey to determine the scope of the problem and examine progress.

A typical sexual assault and harassment campaign poster created by the US Defense Department for its Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. US Army, CC BY-NC-SA

But the impact and effectiveness of this office has been called into question. A 2017 analysis shows that the rates of reported sexual offences within the US military are comparable with their civilian cohorts. On the surface, this may appear positive, but given the considerable effort and programmes that have been developed to combat sexual assault in the forces, it is very disappointing, particularly when the US military has implemented its strategic sexual assault prevention plan, education and training, deterrence and peer support programmes.

In the UK, the political debate has focused on domestic violence within military families. The hyper-masculine military environment involves the controlled use of violence. Evidence suggests that domestic violence and sex offenders exhibit similar behaviours and attitudes. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the General Staff has alluded to “an overly sexualised culture” in the Army, “in which inappropriate behaviour is deemed acceptable” – which may be a contributing factor to sexual violence.

So why are we not talking about this in the UK? Although this topic is taken extremely seriously by the military’s chain of command, there remains limited political discourse. If we lift too many stones, are we bound to find things that may be embarrassing and politically damaging?

A complex issue

The unique cultural environment of the military makes the issue of sexual violence a difficult one to address. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that joking of a sexual nature and “banter” is a common aspect of the hyper-masculine military culture. And while the majority of service personnel have reportedly encountered sexualised talk and behaviours, there is no indication that this has resulted in damaging effects. Masculine banter has also been identified as a way of building essential camaraderie among the troops.

We need to tease apart sexualised joking and behaviours that harm people, from those considered acceptable within military culture. When does sexualised banter cross the line into harassment? There are some fine lines to tread. One way to start might be looking at how service personnel themselves establish boundaries around what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and then look at how these boundaries are formally policed.

Sexual violence in the military is damaging not only to the individual but to the organisation as a whole. Personnel may decide on the basis of an upsetting experience that they no longer want to serve. With reports of a looming recruitment and retention crisis in the Army, we need to encourage debate and focus on this issue. We need to be talking about tackling sexual violence in the UK Armed Forces.

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