This week The Citadel released a report that states, in part, that 20 percent of the school’s female cadets have been sexually assaulted since enrolling in the South Carolina military college. This, as the school administration recognizes by making this report public, is a huge problem. But what most news reports on this topic have failed to mention, or relegated to the sidelines of their story, is that sexual assault occurs with no less frequency on other U.S. college campuses. In fact, the Justice Department estimates, along with a number of other researchers, that 25 percent of women attending college in this country will be raped or experience an attempted rape.
It would be unfair to focus too specifically on the cultural norms that exist at The Citadel, or other military institutions which have received media attention because of reports of sexual assault, that contribute to men’s violence. These norms, and this violence, exist within the walls of all of our schools. And by pigeonholing the military as sexually abusive we also limit our ability to find allies within their ranks. I found this to be true after a recent visit to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., where I spoke with a group of 60 or so Air Force Honor Guard:
The room was full of expectant faces. By far the most diverse crowd I’d presented to. We started by talking about assumptions (true or not) of the military and rape prevention educators, and how they get in the way of productive dialogue. Their self-awareness was impressive, “society says that we’re all violent, want to kill people, are disciplined, male-dominant.” And no less perceptive describing the dominant assumptions of male rape prevention educators, “that you’ve been raped, are doing this for community service, that you’re gay, not a real man.” We discussed why rape is an issue that deeply affects men – because the vast majority of sexual aggressors are men, because men are raped, because, as one troop stated, “some men are violent so women aren’t able to trust any of us, and men get isolated from real, trusting relationships.” The heart of our discussion revolved around the discussion of the behaviors, beliefs and attitudes that create a culture where men’s violence, specifically against women, is tolerated and even encouraged. Here the men were no less willing to discuss examples of potentially sexist thought and action – things like “Blaming a women for being raped because she wore revealing clothes”, “Telling a guy he throws like a girl”, “Believing men always want sex” and “Refusing to wear a condom” - were all easily found to be harmful to women and a part of rape culture. Sure there were men who resisted these ideas, slept, or shouted or mumbled their disagreement, but most everyone there was at the very least actively engaged in thinking about how traditional masculinity shapes our lives and confines our interactions with women, and other men. In fact, the presentation went better than many others I’ve given to university audiences. Only a few of these men held their tongues, they were more than happy to freely discuss what for most of us is taboo. We concluded with a piece where men identify the Strongest Man in their lives, someone they know personally. Fathers, friends, grandfathers made the cut as usual. As in other presentations, the list was short but listed examples of nurturing, emotional openness and a willingness to live for others. None of the men identified a Strongest Man because he was physically strong, violent or powerful.
The men I spoke with at Bolling AFB aren’t the only military guys that have begun challenging rigid gender norms, sexist thinking, and patriarchy in general in this society. Stan Goff, a former Special Forces Master Sergeant, in the military for almost 40 years, writes frequently on gender norms and the military, and how they both affect us all in our daily lives. While talking about his upcoming book Sex and War, he says:
…Male sexuality is strongly identified with aggression. And if you think about how we talk about sex in the vernacular, male sexuality is talked about in very aggressive, sometimes warlike terms.
So while it’s important to recognize and challenge the atmosphere of violence and harassment that may exist at The Citadel, let’s not forget what’s taking place all around us, and keep space open in our movement for guys in the camouflage that are, or may become, powerful allies.
Check out these other military guys that challenge our assumptions by stepping out of war:
Lt. Ehren Watada
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