Stars & Stripes
In March 2017, the Facebook group ‘Marines United 3.0’ was found to have been sharing nude photos of female servicemembers without their consent[i]. A public outcry ensued, as well as an ongoing military investigation into which servicemembers shared these photos, and dismissal from the military for those who were caught. In the wake of this scandal, one would hope to see increased awareness and conversation among military males about misogynistic behavior in the ranks. There has been some, but in the day-to-day military culture, not much has changed. Military leaders have not yet capitalized on the aftermath of this crisis to eradicate the toxic masculinity so deeply engrained in military culture.
Every weekday during my time at the Naval Academy, we had a mandatory noon meal formation. Before the meal was served, we would stand at our tables and wait for the announcements from the Midshipmen Brigade staff, given from the center of the hall. During my freshman year, in 2003, a female had the job of giving the announcements. Every day for the entire academic year, a male in the audience yelled out a name at the top of his lungs before she made her announcement; people laughed in response. I didn’t understand why he was yelling this name – it was not hers. I later discovered – the rumor, at least – that this was the last name of another male midshipman, with whom she had purportedly slept. I remember thinking that this was funny at the time. Thinking about it now, debasing and humiliating a person with mere assertions of sexual misconduct in a public setting isn’t funny. This was sexual harassment.
Fourteen years later, I am no longer on active duty. A couple months ago, on my last drill weekend for the Navy Reserves, I was chatting with some other male colleagues about an article in the Navy Times about Admiral Michelle Howard, the first woman to attain the rank of a four-star admiral[ii]. I expressed concern about the reflexive criticism that reliably emerges in reaction to any article about a female servicemember. When the Navy Times shared news of Admiral Howard’s promotion on Facebook, the top comment was from a white man who posted, “Fix your gig line, Ma’am.” My point in this discussion with my colleagues was that the commenter would have never said that about another man. Men like him perpetuate an attitude of disrespect towards women, and a systemic culture in the military allows his efforts to thrive.
After my remarks about the Navy Times article, another male officer jumped in, twisting the lesson I’d shared and running with it. He relayed a story of how he had served alongside the female servicemember who was punished after filming herself in civilian clothes while sitting down at NAS Pensacola as the national anthem played. His primary point was that she was “stupid” and “deserved everything she got.” Instead of rebutting his remarks, I let them pass.
Now, I certainly do not think that this female servicemember was right in what she did, but I believe strongly that my colleague only broached the subject because she is a woman. The only connection between what I had said and the subject that he raised was the servicemember’s gender. But instead of either agreeing or disagreeing with my point, he took the mention of females to launch into his own well-worn tirade on his issues with a female in his previous command. In doing so, he completely missed the irony of cynically targeting a female servicemember right after my comments arguing that such behavior needs to stop.
A little over two years ago, Anna Granville wrote an op-ed for Task and Purpose outlining the reasons she was resigning her commission as an active duty naval officer[iii]. It was the most recent in a litany of op-eds – and even books – that sought to address why the military was “bleeding talent.” There was nothing outlandish in Granville’s article. It recycled worthwhile, if tired, reasons for her decision to leave the military; I agreed with all of her points.
That being said, I found it difficult to understand why, when her article was shared across social media, it was met with a vehemently critical spotlight that bordered on insidious obsession. Her article is one of a dozen or so that I have read criticizing the military’s management strategy. If anything, its only offense is in not being original; it certainly did not merit the unique level of mere interest it garnered, and much less the backlash.
The top commenter on her post at Task and Purpose, a man, took issue with Granville’s point about the military being a “homogenous, anti-intellectual organization” by saying that other races, genders, and creeds can “cowboy up and serve” if they want to. He then directed Granville to “make up your mind babe” about the perceived hypocrisy of a previous point of hers.
“Babe?” Really, bro? The irony of a white male making such inane comments about an author lamenting the culture that condones such comments is rich. His remarks received 159 likes, more than any other comment on the post.
At that time, I could not understand the backlash against Granville, so I asked my long-time friend, a Captain in the Army. “She’s a woman,” he responded, “so, dogpile.” He meant that she was uniquely and mercilessly targeted solely because she was a woman.
The culture that cheered a man publicly heckling a woman at the Naval Academy is the same military culture that supports a man criticizing a woman simply because she’s a woman. The incidents differ in setting and severity, but they are both indicative of the misogyny that exists in the military. I have borne witness to this culture since I entered the Naval Academy in 2003, but have only recently begun to understand the true nature of the problem. By not participating, I liked to believe that I was a “good guy,” but I have since learned that not being part of the solution is being part of the problem.
Sexual discrimination is a problem that predates my time in the Navy, and it persists to the present day. The breaking of the Marine Corps photo scandal shed light on a problem that continues to plague our armed forces. Servicemembers reported 6, 172 cases of sexual assault in 2016, and 6,082 the year before. This is a sharp increase from 2012, when only 3,604 cases were reported. Rather than an increase in occurrence, this increase is significantly due to larger emphasis placed on reporting. In 2016, 58 percent of victims reported experiencing some kind of reprisal for reporting sexual assault. Still, sexual assault and harassment are not the military’s only problems, and the military is not the only profession where the predominance of men allows for a culture of toxic masculinity. [JM1]
A recent op-ed in the New York Times by Sam Polk, a female former Wall Street trader, highlights the problem of ‘bro talk’ on Wall Street[iv]. Polk reports many instances of overt sexism on Wall Street, including a bond trader friend who received a smaller-than-expected bonus after refusing to sleep with her boss, and another friend who sued her employer, a major bank, after it took away all her major clients on her return from maternity leave. The author draws direct ties between sexual violence and a culture of casual disrespect: “When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well. And if we don’t participate, our silence condones this language. I deeply regret remaining quiet while women were disparaged during my eight years as a trader.”
I, too, regret remaining quiet.
I regret that I did nothing in response to that cadet yelling out at the Naval Academy. I regret not opening that dialogue about sexual harassment with my friend and co-worker, instead choosing to allow the conversation to drift. I regret having done nothing to unseat a culture of disrespect towards female servicemembers.
I won’t be silent any longer.
[i] Elliott C. McLaughlin and AnneClaire Stapleton, “Secret Marines is Still Sharing Nude Photos Amid Scandal,” CNN, last modified March 9 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/08/politics/marines-united-photos-investigati...
[ii] “Adm. Michelle Howard picked to lead U.S. Navy forces in Europe,” Navy Times, last modified May 19 2016, http://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2016/05/19/adm-michelle-howard-p...
[iii] Anna Granville, “4 Reasons I Am Resigning My Commission As A Naval Officer,” Task and Purpose, last modified on April 13 2015, http://taskandpurpose.com/4-reasons-i-am-resigning-my-commission-as-a-na...
[iv] Sam Polk, “How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down,” New York Times, last modified July 7, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/opinion/sunday/how-wall-street-bro-ta...