To Stop Sexual Assault against Women in the US Military, Add More Women

Article excerpt

Last week, the US military services announced their plans to integrate women in combat specialties. Although it may sound counterintuitive, the full integration of women in the armed forces - in all roles, at all levels, and in far greater numbers - will do more to stop sexual assault against them than any other measure.

It will help more, for instance, than creating a new cadre of lawyers (called "special victims counsels") to assist service members who say they are victims of sexual assault - a program now underway in the Air Force. It will help more than reforming the prosecution of sexual misconduct cases so that victims do not fear reprisal from commanders - an issue the Senate Armed Services Committee has grappled with.

Both of these efforts are worthwhile, but they address the effects of the scourge. They do not get to its cause, which is the hyper-masculine, male-dominant culture of the military. To do that, the military must create a far more welcoming atmosphere for women, who make up only 15 percent of the armed services. It must welcome and value them as equal partners, and it must greatly increase their numbers.

As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey commented in January, when the Defense Department lifted the ban on women in combat, having "separate classes" of male "warriors" and everyone else creates an environment ripe for sexual assault and harassment. The more that the Pentagon "can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally."

In May, the Pentagon said that the number of sexual assaults reported by service members increased to 2,949 last year, more than double those reported in 2004 - perhaps reflecting more willingness to report under the Pentagon's sex-assault prevention and response program, which began in 2005.

Many more incidents go unreported. According to a Pentagon survey, last year about 26,000 service members (6.1 percent of females and 1.2 percent of males) said they experienced unwanted sexual contact - which may range from rape to abusive sexual contact.

And yet, we are stunned by the leadership's continued misapprehension of how a "culture change" could happen. Too many generals seem to think the solution starts with the rank and file, when it must start at the top - with them.

In a recent Washington Post commentary on the need to reform military culture, Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales concluded that "so long as the culture of the rank and file rejects the presence of women as their professional partners, nothing will change."

Similarly, it was disturbing last week to see Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, of Special Operations Command, haltingly discuss the integration of women into elite services such as the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers.

Full combat integration is now required across the services by 2016, with exceptions having to be approved by the secretary of Defense. Yet Major General Sacolick was not able to commit to any integration in the elite forces. He wants first to survey the rank and file on "social implications," and "behavioral and cultural" aspects of integration.

The only reason to hold back women soldiers - whom Sacolick at one point called "young girls" - is a specific finding that they cannot do the job. Resistance from the rank and file has no place in a decision to keep an occupation or unit closed to women.

It is much easier to look for external sources of a problem than to examine ourselves. …