A female officer in military police training

A female officer in military police training Sgt. Jeran Placke/189th infantry Brigade, Division West

How the Military’s 'Bro' Culture Turns Women Into Targets

A testosterone fueled environment is hindering efforts for the military's female personnel to combat sexual assault in their ranks. By Sara Sorcher

Kayla Williams, an Arabic linguist, was the only woman with a group of about 20 troops posted to Iraq's Sinjar Mountain in 2003, and she was almost one of the boys. To kill time while off-duty, the men pretended to hump everything in sight, including the Humvee, during their relatively unsupervised patrol. They put their testicles on one another's faces in a practice called "tea bagging." Their behavior was ridiculous but common among bros deployed in dangerous, remote locations. Sometimes, the men included Williams when they threw pebbles at each other, aiming for holes near the crotches of their pants. "[They started] throwing rocks at my boobs when they were throwing rocks at each other," Williams recalls. "Is that sexual harassment, or are they treating me like one of them? Is it exclusive or inclusive? I can't answer that. It's complicated." But she didn't let it bother her too much.

Then one night, while monitoring the outpost on the side of a mountain, Williams went to relieve a guard on duty. He grabbed her hand. "He had pulled out his penis and was trying to put my hand on his cock," Williams says. She wasn't quite worried she'd be raped—the junior enlisted Army soldier, then 26 years old, was carrying a gun within earshot of others who would hear her if she screamed—but the guard was frighteningly aggressive. After trying to get her to sleep with him, or at least give him a blow job, he gave up and left.

Still, Williams was angry. When she told men in her unit about the incident, they said she'd joined a man's military and asked what she expected to happen. "It definitely made me feel guys who were sexually harassing me, who were violating the rules, who were doing the wrong thing—that guys felt they were more important as soldiers because they were men." Williams, now a Truman National Security Project fellow and the author ofLove My Rifle More Than You, didn't want to be a victim, so she stopped joking around and came off as unfriendly, she says. It was a lonely decision with potentially steep costs. "It's hard to be in a combat zone when I'm expected to rely on these guys for my life, but [I] no longer felt I could trust them to not sexually assault me if I let my guard down."

The military's sexual-assault epidemic is well-known—and it is not confined to high-profile cases like the sex-abuse educator discovered running a small-time prostitution ring at Fort Hood, Texas; the Army sergeant charged with secretly videotaping female cadets in West Point bathrooms; or the 33 instructors ensnared in a sex scandal involving twice as many students at Lackland Air Force base, also in Texas. Those scandals fueled the congressional and media frenzy over the 3,374 reported sexual assaults in the military last year. The Pentagon estimates that sexual assaults actually occur far more frequently—and that 26,000 troops were victims of unwanted sexual contact (6.1 percent of the military's women and 1.2 percent of its men) last year alone. Fewer than 1 percent of adults in the civilian world experienced something comparable, according to data in the most recent National Crime Victimization Survey.

Less understood is why the military's culture of abuse has been so hard to combat—let alone eradicate. Other civilian crimes (such as violent assaults or theft) occur at far lower rates in the military, but rampant sexual abuse among the troops persists. The reasons are diffuse and, because of fundamental military values, hard to change. They include a stark gender imbalance (roughly seven men for every woman), blurry lines between professional and personal lives, intense bonding that can foster lascivious rituals, and a hierarchical command structure that can inadvertently enable assaults. The military, of course, is not peopled by rapists. Yet despite the Pentagon's apparently sincere efforts to change the culture, it is proving almost impossible to alter the standards of acceptable behavior, especially in situations where young people have little supervision—leaving intact an environment that can allow those who would assault someone to take things too far. This is the story of why.


Pentagon brass appear to comprehend the problem. In a May interview with USA Today, the director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, described how sexism and sexual harassment in the military helps create a "permissive environment" where assaults can occur. Women who reported a hostile working environment were six times likelier to say they experienced rape in a survey of female veterans conducted by the University of Iowa Social Science Research Center in 2003; and those who said their ranking officers or supervisors allowed (or made) sexually demeaning comments or gestures were up to four times as likely to cite rape.

 That's why officials are trying to modernize the fight against sexual assault, which has persisted through many pledges to reform since the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, in which 83 women and seven men were assaulted at a Las Vegas aviators' conference. Back then, "prevention" often meant instructing troops to stay safe by locking doors and windows; now trainers tell them how to identify and disrupt a potential assault. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in May said commanders would be accountable if they fail to foster a climate that prevents assault, cares for victims, and reduces stigma associated with reporting. This month, Hagel ordered that assault victims get legal representation throughout the judicial process; that the department's inspector general audit closed investigations; and that senior officials within the chain of command receive follow-up reports on assaults and responses. Hagel has also ordered inspections of military facilities to remove sexually explicit and degrading material. Yet attitudes in the military, where those who complain of misconduct are often seen as nuisances and worse, are not very pliable.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Smith, popular among the fighters she worked for, was on track for success. When a young female pilot training at Luke Air Force Base received the call sign "Grassy" because another student revealed she never shaved her private areas, Smith shrugged it off. When pilots screened pornography in front of the crew to amp up for flying missions in Iraq, she shrugged it off. When they sang ditties from the Vietnam War era that had lyrics about mutilating and raping women, she shrugged it off. (To the tune of Willy Wonka's "Candy Man": "Who can take a cheese grater, / Strap it to his arm? / Ram it in her pussy, / And make vagina parmesan? … The S&M man cause he makes it with pain, / And makes the hurt feel good.") The attitude of the older male pilots, Smith recalls, was, "If you're going to run with the men"—especially when men are the bosses—"you'd better learn how to deal with it."

When Smith went to find equipment from a storage area for a flying exercise at Shaw Air Force Base in 2008, she found porn instead. When she asked commanders to remove it, pilots started calling her a "bitch," even though her complaint was supposed to be anonymous and unofficial. After that, Smith deployed to Iraq. There, a service member threw her against a wall and tried to rape her when she was working an overnight shift. At first, Smith didn't come forward because, she says, she was discouraged that her seniors had failed to eliminate the porn stash. Meanwhile, she lost her tolerance for sexual jokes. "I would say, 'That's really inappropriate,' and that didn't go over well. That's like questioning their authority." Fed up, she filed a formal report after she'd returned stateside, disclosing both the porn and her assault. Because she "snitched," her coworkers "dropped me like a hot potato," she said.

The military is full of traditions that linger from its all-male days, and these prompt some women to complain that they are treated as second-class citizens—bolstered by actual job inequality: Women are still barred from front-line combat (at least until 2016) and are outnumbered in the officer corps. They make up only 15 percent of 1.4 million active-duty service members; only 16 percent of officers are women. Of the military's 38 four-star generals or admirals, just one is a woman.

Women's lower status means that their male colleagues sometimes see them as less trustworthy in a "he-said, she-said" scenario, according to psychologist Stephanie Sacks, author of an essay in a 2005 Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs publication on military culture and sexual-assault victims. If a woman is assaulted, wrote Sacks, who also trains military troops in sexual-assault prevention, many men believe "it is at least a little bit her fault because she didn't really belong [in the military] to begin with…. The line goes that if you are going to voluntarily put yourself in the company of large groups of men, especially who are on a deployment and so not having easy access to consensual sex, what do you expect?" If a woman complains, Sacks says, men may feel women are diverting the mission's focus with secondary issues.

Williams, who found out the hard way that she wasn't really one of the boys, says this describes her experience. Yes, she was easygoing and joked around, but the men somehow thought they could turn their explicit jokes into reality. While Williams was lucky to have escaped an assault, many others were not, and the attitudes displayed by her peers after the incident help show why so many assaults go unreported in the military. When Williams was considering complaining, they asked her, "Why would you ruin a man's career just because you can't take it?" She inferred that because she was a woman and not allowed in combat, she was effectively a "second-class citizen": "My career was seen by my peers as being less important."

More worrisome, many servicemen aren't inclined to believe women's complaints in the first place. According to a Corps survey in September 2012, Marines listed being falsely accused of sexual assault as a top concern about opening combat positions to women. A broad swath of research in the civilian world shows that the rate of false reporting is very low, around 2 to 8 percent, as is the case with other felonies. But of 3,374 reported incidents in 2012, military prosecutors won only 238 convictions. A big reason, says former Air Force JAG officer David Frakt, is that "in these he-said, she-said situations, there's no witness, no other physical evidence to corroborate the claims. When the standard is beyond a reasonable doubt, and you have an accused who has a long record of positive military service, no prior history, there's a very high chance of acquittal in that situation."

Acquittal, of course, is not the same thing as innocence, Frakt notes. Yet the military's judicial system can fail victims even before a case gets to trial. Senior commanders, who have convening authority, make the decision about whether to refer a case to a court-martial, where the allegation must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to earn a conviction. If a commander does not want to move the case forward, he or she can take no action; unilaterally mandate an administrative response (such as a reprimand or counseling) to correct the accused's behavior; or preside over a nonjudicial punishment hearing in which the commander is the "sole decider of facts and punishment," according to Frakt. Punishment options in this case are rather limited—no jail time, no bad conduct discharge, and no criminal convictions.

With so few courts-martial resulting in sexual-assault convictions, troops may be disinclined to believe there's a real problem—an environment that would-be perpetrators can exploit to carry out assaults. So the Pentagon is working to combat this perception. "Between 92 to 98 percent of the time, a victim is telling us the truth. Those are pretty good odds," Nathan Galbreath, a senior official in the Pentagon's Sexual Assault and Prevention Office, says. "We're also trying to educate folks on the difference between a false report and a report where there's insufficient evidence." Last year, commanders could not take action in 509 cases because of "evidentiary problems." Another 1,028 were either outside the department's legal authority or officials thought the accusations "unfounded"—false or baseless. A baseless report usually is presumed truthful but does not meet the formal standards of the crime. It doesn't mean the perpetrator is innocent.

The military is a highly regulated organization, and that is part of the problem. It has rules to cover everything from lipstick shades to suitable golf buddies. These guidelines make it nearly impossible to frame a discussion about consensual sex versus assault, argues Bruce Fleming, a professor at the Naval Academy, where everything from hand-holding to intercourse is outlawed for all four years. "The military is basically a no-sex zone." All bases are intended to be sex-free. Oral sex and adultery are crimes. Public displays of affection in uniform are banned. Officers cannot date, sleep with, or even spend too much time with enlisted troops. The same goes for superiors and inferiors within those ranks. The military's unsuccessful strategy has been to "forbid and punish" everything sexual to try to stop assaults, when instead, Fleming says, it should be "targeting the specific deviant behavior that really matters."

Blanket regulations against everything sexual can create the perception that sexual assault is somehow a lesser crime. Training to be an Arabic cryptologist for the Navy at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., Tia Christopher, then 19 years old, invited a fellow service member (a pastor's son who had taken her on a Bible study date) to stop by her room—breaking the rules. "It went from, 'Hey, what are you doing, stop!' to him hitting my head on the cinder-block wall behind my bed." Two women were drinking next door and heard the struggle. But because the military offers no amnesty for "collateral misconduct," they at first refused to support Christopher's allegation, fearing they'd be punished for drinking. (They were.)


In the military's closed society, there's a pervasive belief that "you know who can be trusted and who can't," Sacks tells National Journal. Anyone you know so well in your unit couldn't possibly attack someone else, the thinking goes. 

This enhanced loyalty is vital in combat, but it's counterproductive when it comes to believing that someone has been assaulted. The victim who reports an incident becomes the "squeaky wheel"—the troublemaker, especially if performance starts to suffer as he or she processes the trauma, Sacks says. People think rapists are ugly and can't get sex another way, says Chris Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the Air Force Academy. They're not. "They tend to be more handsome, charming, and have more consensual sex than non-rapists, and [are] very good at cultivating the appearance of being a nice guy. So when there's an assault taking place, people who know this guy say, 'He's such a nice guy, there's no way he can do it.' " Afterward, of course, civilians assaulted in the workplace can look for another job if they want; troops are locked in for years.

Knowing they have to stay in an environment where the group may side with the perpetrator can discourage victims from reporting the attack. Christopher heard stories about women who lost their careers and friends by divulging the incident, so she bleached her sheets and tried to forget that her assault took place. But because her attacker started stalking her at the chow hall and en route to class, she finally came forward. When her commander in charge of the Navy detachment at the language-training base belittled her rape report, she started having panic attacks, lost 30 pounds, and began failing classes where she'd previously scored A's. Even other women turned against her. "This girl, she was Puerto Rican"—like the attacker—"called me a 'racist bitch.' " Victimized men may face even higher hurdles. "It's hard to imagine how could a man, especially a strong, tough man with a weapon, be sexually assaulted. So if they are, it brings up questions about their masculinity," Sacks says. "Do you want somebody on your team who is a victim, somebody who couldn't fight back?"

Assailants in the military who go unchecked in an environment skeptical of assaults can find more victims. Christopher later found the same woman who insulted her crying in a stairwell. "She said, 'I'm so sorry. He raped me.' " 

Because of the long odds for a conviction and the high cost (in stigma) attached to reporting, the Pentagon worries that victims are disinclined to file complaints. New programs allow "restricted reporting" so victims can get health care without pressing charges or naming their attackers, but these options can reinforce the belief that sexual-assault victims are weak, need special treatment, or made it all up to milk the system. "The victim is immediately identified as a victim," says Frakt. Fellow troops may see the person receiving "all kinds of perks," including getting off work, obtaining counseling, and taking convalescent leave. "In an environment like the military, which treasures toughness and sort of dealing with your own problems, all of these services may feed a perception these people ... [are] not cut out for the military way of life." Already, male soldiers often see pregnancy as a tactic women use to escape a war zone. They may now believe that restricted reports are a "guilt-free" way for women to escape an unpleasant deployment, Frakt says. "Maybe they don't like their commander, supervisor."

What's more, would-be sexual predators have many opportunities in a culture where everyone is a direct superior or subordinate. A trainee, according to Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish, is told that superiors are essentially "your preacher, your boss, your father figure, your God." If the superior orders, say, an unusual after-hours office visit, trainees go. Otherwise, they can be written up for failing to follow orders. Sexual-assault victims are usually lower-ranking. At Lackland Air Force base, where every recruit goes for basic training, 24 instructors were convicted recently of misconduct with trainees, according to reports. In August, the Pentagon removed 60 recruiters, drill instructors, and sexual-assault counselors from duty after finding violations related to alcohol, child abuse, and sexual assault. Another problem is the difficulty in screening for predatory behavior: Until a person is in a position of authority, it's hard to tell who will abuse it.

Because higher-ranking service-members are responsible for what happens on their watch, they have an incentive to ignore accusations against their subordinates or even to attack victims' credibility, Parrish says. "So the retaliation begins: charging them with collateral misconduct, beginning to write them up for a series of so-called misbehaviors, or sending them to psych wards to be misdiagnosed with errant medical diagnoses such as personality disorder." Those procedures can even lead to discharge. According to the Pentagon report, 62 percent of victims who filed complaints said they were retaliated against professionally, socially, or administratively. Commanders can also make judicial decisions, as when a three-star general overturned the aggravated-assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, whom a jury of military officers sentenced in November to detention and dismissal from the military. 

That case fueled a push on Capitol Hill for an independent military judiciary to handle sexual-assault cases, but the Pentagon still believes commanders are best equipped to deal with the problem. Frakt notes they can dole out administrative punishments like fines or demotions when a court-martial conviction isn't likely. "They recognize it's probably less [punishment] than the person deserves, but it's not going to be in the hands of a jury. People work very hard to do the right thing." Yet victims often interpret these moves as just a slap on the wrist for their attacker. Delilah Rumburg, who leads the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, says the biggest complaint she hears from female victims is "not so much they failed to get a conviction" but that the military system did not allow for a fair process. 


When Christopher left the military, "I was like, 'I'm going to go to fucking Oprah.' " Four days later, she watched on television as the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. "Walmart started selling flag T-shirts. You hadn't really seen a lot of patriotism in a long time. I thought to myself, 'There's no way I can talk about this. No one's going to want to hear what happened to me when there's this fervor going around.' I was silent for many years."

Now that the military is no longer on a war footing, victims like Christopher and advocacy groups hope they will have a chance to reshape the military's structure and focus on combating the enemy within. The onslaught of media reports on sex scandals has fueled momentum among lawmakers on Capitol Hill and senior officials in the Pentagon.

Despite this can-do attitude, no quick fix is available. Policymakers can install victim-assistance programs, but until there's less stigma attached to reporting sexual crimes, they will go underused. Commanders can promise to take assault cases seriously, but until the conviction rate rises, victims will see their superiors as ineffective or untrustworthy. The military can oust abusers, but in a system where commanders ultimately make all the decisions, it won't get consistent results. The Pentagon can mandate prevention training and the press can sensationalize abuse scandals, but when troops see all this as a witch hunt rather than a true problem, they will foster a culture that allows true assailants to operate relatively freely.

And defense leaders themselves may be out of touch with behaviors that evolve on the front. When Kayla Williams lived on an Iraqi mountainside among all those men, she and her fellow soldiers slept in a pen circumscribed by barbed wire to prevent incursions. Despite the many military regulations, they created their own culture from norms they thought were acceptable. It was powered by sexually explicit jokes and exposed genitalia.