Sexual Harassment in the Military: A Taboo Subject?

The 29th of June. Armed Forces Day. A day when we celebrate everything that the military does for our country. Men, and women, who put their lives on the line to guarantee our security. 

Why is it therefore that so many of the same people we celebrate, the same people to whom we owe the comfort and safety of our daily lives, face a betrayal of that very commitment by being under greater threat from their fellow service members than from the field of battle?

In 2011, it was estimated that a female soldier serving in Iraq was more likely to be attacked by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. That was in 2011. The statistics have multiplied since then (by 43%). Jaysley Beck’s story is just one of the narratives behind that figure: a 19-year-old Royal Artillery Gunner, who took her own life after experiencing sexual harassment from her boss. Before her death, he had left her 3500 messages to which she replied, “I can’t handle it anymore, it’s weighing me down”. However, she was reluctant to report the incident because of how a previous case of sexual assault had been handled by the army. 

The military justice system had failed her, but she was not alone. Cases are dealt with by the Royal Military Police, meaning that there is no dedicated or permanent team with the knowledge and experience of civilian police. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the British Army survey suggests that reporting rates are woefully low, with only about 3% of affected servicewomen making a formal written complaint. 

This internalised culture of institutional misogyny and harassment which is repeatedly kept in the shadows can be held accountable for the deaths of those such as Jaysley Beck. 

Many servicewomen have turned to internet forums for support, which was lacking elsewhere; two anonymous writers described their experience:

“When I turned to colleagues for help afterwards, one officer told me: ‘If you ever tell anyone what happened, I’ll ruin your naval career.’ It was a boys’ club.”

“The men who commit these acts often go on to be promoted. I left the military with debt and trauma.”

The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) identified military sexual trauma as the number one factor negatively affecting women’s mental wellness, whilst suicide rates were found to be 250% higher than those of civilian women. 

As campaigns such as #MeToo gain recognition across the globe, how can a nation such as the UK, which prides itself on leading the stage in gender equality, avoid such a topical problem?

 It is often thought that the public (as a whole) avoids engaging with the issue, viewing it as too controversial. But it is also largely in the hands of those at the top, those in positions of power, to tackle the culture which engenders misbehaviour and sexism. Despite the blindingly negative undertone, there have been numerous efforts across the world to ameliorate the situation. 

At the 2013 UN’s International Women’s Day Conference, Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison ruthlessly vowed to rid the army of sexist men and told defence members to “find something else to do with your life” if they couldn’t uphold the values of the organisation. Having been posted on YouTube, the video quickly gained thousands of views. 

Since its release, the film “The Invisible War” has shocked and informed people worldwide about the long-silenced epidemic of sexual harassment in the US military. It also triggered an online social media campaign, titled #NotInvisible which has reached audiences not only in the US but across the world, focusing specifically on women in the military, something the #MeToo campaign lacked. 

Moreover, Sweden’s military introduced a bystander program which changes the culture surrounding how service men and women react to and report sexual abuse when they see or are aware of it taking place. 

Although as a nation, the UK follow these examples that promote change and give more priority to the foundations of this issue, certain political parties do have propositions aimed at military sexual harassment in their agendas. The Green Party has long called for a halt to the recruitment of 16 to 17-year-olds. Jaysley Beck was only 16 when she joined the army and was assaulted for the first time not long after her arrival. 

Finally, the key underlying issue beneath all of this is gender inequality, which acts as a key barrier to solving the problem. Women currently constitute only 11% of the armed forces and will often feel like a minority, made to feel inferior and objectified in a place in which they should feel incredibly proud for the work they are doing. 

Clearly, much needs to change to make the forces safe for any recruit, however, hopefully, it won’t take any more cases, such as that of Jaysley Beck, for amends to be made, not only in public perception but within government policy and military training also.

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