Toxic masculinity and the military

24 Oct, 2018
Army men with guns

Nicky Hager’s article “No Defence” in North & South alleges a culture of impunity within the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). Among the many issues he discusses, Hager tells the story of a woman working at Ohakea Air Force base who was sexual assaulted by two men at a social event. She complained to her unit commander, as per the procedures at the time. But nothing happened. She went to her boss’ boss. Nothing. She took a formal complaint up with lawyers who went to the Chief of the Air Force. Nothing. The lawyers tried the Chief of Defence Force. Nothing. See, the woman had been drinking and the two men were just having “a bit of fun”.

The wall of silence in the face of her allegation is abhorrent, yet in the age of “me too”, this lack of accountability for sexual assault should surprise no one.

The NZDF is certainly not alone when it comes to a culture of sexual harassment and a lack of enforcing standards.

In the United States, the military has been at the centre of sexual abuse scandals since the early 1990s. The US Defence Department reported that 6,172 allegations of sexual assault occurred in 2016. As a result of laying a complaint, 58% of complainants suffered retaliation in various forms, such as being removed from their position or being involuntarily discharged.

Similarly, the Canadian Armed Forces has recently been exposed for a culture of hostility against both female and homosexual personnel. A survey in 2016 found that 27% of women in the Canadian Armed Forces suffered sexual assault during their career and, more often than not, at the hands of their superior.

An Australian Defence Force (ADF) report stated that 245 complaints consisting of, among other things, sexual assault and harassment were received in 2015-16. And last year, members of the ADF were implicated as part of a Facebook group which shared material promoting domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse of children.

Even in United Nations peacekeeping missions, military contingents suffer a similar culture of sexual exploitation and abuse which has plagued the organisation for over 20 years.

In each of these examples, there are official procedures and documents which detail the response to complaints of sexual assault. Each has “zero-tolerance” policies and supposedly have “victim-centred” approaches. Yet, sexual assault continues with impunity.

Despite an increase in promoting women in the armed forces, the NZDF, the ADF, the US and Canadian militaries remain overwhelmingly male. Women make up less than 25% of the NZDF and the US military, less than 20% of the Canadian Armed Forces, and less than 15% of the ADF. This creates an inherently gendered context. Add to this a preference for a particular form of masculinity, characterised by male aggression, hyper-heterosexuality, and dominance over the “feminine” and you have a recipe for sexual violence.

This “toxic masculinity” is bad news for anyone who does not easily fit into the culture, who may be targeted for sexual assault and harassment.  Women are thus more likely to be de-humanised, hyper-sexualised, and the subject of male aggression. Where toxic masculinity is perpetuated by superiors, the result is a “boys will be boys” attitude and a reluctance to enforce “zero-tolerance” standards.

The overall picture of sexual assault in world militaries proves that slapping together a document about policies and procedures is not enough when the people in charge do not take rape culture and sexual harassment seriously. This is because women themselves are not taken seriously.

Hard questions need to be put to NZDF leadership about their commitment to change the culture of toxic masculinity, which is a change that goes far beyond policies and procedures.

Dr Cassandra Mudgway is a lecturer at AUT Law School. Her research focuses on international criminal law, specifically sexual crimes committed by UN peacekeepers, international human rights law and feminist legal theory.

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