The military is peculiarly powerful. This is particularly true in the United States where I have spent the last 3 months. It is also one of the most hierarchical institutions on the planet. Wherever you have a military you have those in power and those subject to power. You have the officers and the grunts. You don’t want to be a grunt.
If you add sexual/gender power imbalances things get even worse. Arizona, where I have been living, has been exposed recently by an American Senator of all people. Recently Arizona U.S. Senator Martha McSally surprised the state and even the country by announcing during a Senate subcommittee meeting that she had been raped while she was in the Air Force. McSally spent 2 decades in the Air Force before she became a Senator. Much of that time was served here in Arizona at very bases close to where we are living. In fact she was the first female pilot to see combat. She also said she felt like she had been victimized again when she reported the incident to her superior officers. Interestingly, she said, “I thought I was strong, but I felt powerless…The perpetrators abused their position of power in a profound way…I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experience was handled…Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me allover again.”
If this could happen to a woman who ultimately was promoted to Commander, we have to wonder what would happen to a less powerful female in the Air Force? The uncomfortable fact is the American military, probably like every other military in the world, Canada’s included, has for too long been a male dominated institution in which there is a strong power imbalance that is magnified when gender inequality is added creating a truly toxic brew.
As reported by the Arizona Republic, The Pentagon officially reported 6,769 sexual assaults in 2017, nearly a 10 percent increase over the prior year. But advocacy groups such as Protect Our Defenders say the true number is likely 15,000 to 26,000 annually. I don’t know about you but I found that a shocking number. According to the Pentagon’s own statistics that amounts to about 20 sexual assault per day! If you accept the number from the critics it could be as high as 722 per day! According to a Rand Corporation Report last year, in a Sierra Vista base here in Arizona, about 1 in 12 female soldiers were sexually assaulted during the year of the survey. Remember these are assaults not harassments.
The American military, like the Canadian military, has for years been trying to stamp out sexual assault and harassment under pressure for various sources. Clearly their success has been about as great as the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the Arizona Republic reported that a recent Pentagon report showed that sexual assaults spiked nearly 50% in 2017-2018 despite years of focus on the problem. That report also showed that 60 percent of military victims who reported rapes suffered career-ending retaliation. It is hardly surprising that young women are reluctant to come forward with complaints.
The report also identified 2 particularly vulnerable groups: young, unmarried females of lower ranks and personnel aboard ships (where women are far from protection.) It is clear that the issue is power. Powerful men (and yes most of these are men) abuse vulnerable women. It really is that simple. Not all of the men, but too many. The inequality of the power is the key. Just as it is in cases of coaches abusing athletes, priest and nuns or priests and young people in the church , employers and employees, teachers and students, parents and children, and men and women. Wherever power is uneven, people must be on alert.
I don’t know if there is any evidence that women would do a better job of this than men, but it is difficult to believe that they could do worse. Maybe its time to give women a chance. We need someone like John Lennon to create a song about that. We can’t all compose songs, but at the very least it is time for men to speak up. All of us.