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

The sexual-assault epidemic plaguing the Armed Forces is rooted in a hypermasculine ethos that fosters predation.

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 of Love 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.

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Sara Sorcher a staff reporter (national security and foreign policy) for National Journal.

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