Learning the wrong lesson from military sex scandals

Posted: July 17, 2012

Simultaneously, two very different stories are unfolding about women in the military, speaking to the best and worst about our force's capacity to reform and repulse. As the Pentagon allows more women to train for duties they couldn't perform under the antiquated combat exclusion rules, an unfolding rape scandal at Texas' Lackland Air Force Base shows that some men still view assault as sport.

The mixed narratives, some argue, suggest what can happen when the sexes merge in the military. Even Gen. Edward Rice, the head of Air Force personnel, hinted that separation in basic training might be the solution.

This notion — that sexual abuse is somehow tied to women's proximity to combat — is a complete ruse. Women in combat are not a cause of sexual assault, but they could be the cure.

The Lackland scandal is shocking in its scope and the relative lack of public attention to it. An internal Air Force investigation proves that 31 women have been victimized at the training centers there, mostly by male instructors.

No new inclusion efforts have gone into effect at Lackland. Sexual abuse scandals such as the 1991 Tailhook incident have plagued the military since well before women took on more combat roles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently released data show nearly 20,000 "violent sexual offenses" within the ranks last year, and thousands more unacknowledged.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has required new "zero tolerance" policies that ensure allegations of sexual crimes are reviewed by seasoned officers, not the victim's (and often the perpetrator's) immediate commander. There is no dearth of ways to address the problem, including changes to rules that prohibit uniformed personnel from seeking civil remedies against the military. A less radical response would be civilian oversight of training and reporting on sexual harassment.

What is not a solution is the notion that segregation of the sexes in training or combat will stem assaults. It's unrealistic, panders to stereotypes, and discriminates against women. Worst of all, it may contribute to the violence.

The problem of sexual assaults is the product of a system that has thrived on the premise that women are not of equal status, a premise reflected in the combat exclusion rules themselves. Those rules make no sense in modern-day warfare. On the battlefield, they are not enforced, and women often fight alongside men.

It's quite possible that such integration has contributed to an increase in sexual assaults in the past few years, but the challenges and stresses facing the military in a period of sustained war can't be discounted; suicides and substance abuse are also on the rise.

Reports of sex crimes also lead more women to hesitate to join the military, making the numbers necessary for true integration impossible.

Instead of proposing a new form of exclusionary rules, the Pentagon should realize that these two narratives — women as warriors and women as victims — inevitably come together. While sexual assault occurs in all professions, it will surely be less prevalent in a system where women have equal footing, a strong numerical presence, and well-earned leadership roles.

Every service is opening its doors a bit more. This is progress. But 250,000 military jobs are still closed to women, and so long as they are, men and women will view each other suspiciously over a divide that should not hold.

Juliette Kayyem writes for the Boston Globe.

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