Perceived as “Dykes, Whores, Bitches”: 1 in 3 Military Women Experience Sexual Abuse

by Nancy Van Ness
- USA -

I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know just how bad. Colonel Ann Wright, retired US Army, grabbed the audience’s attention at a panel called Women in the Military, hosted last month by Women Center Stage in New York City, when she said that one in three women in the military is sexually abused by her male colleagues. Ann wants to see huge signs displaying this statistic in every recruiting office, to let young women know what to expect if they sign up.

After 26 years in the US Army/Army Reserves, Ann went on to serve in the US Diplomatic Corps for fifteen years, receiving the State Department’s Award for Heroism in 1997. She helped open the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in January 2002 and then was Deputy Chief of Mission in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. But in 2003 she resigned from the Diplomatic Corps, saying, “I have served my country for almost thirty years in the some of the most isolated and dangerous parts of the world. However, I do not believe in the policies of this Administration,” referring to the invasion of Iraq. Since then, she has advocated tirelessly for peace.

She described first hand accounts from witnesses and seeing photographs that document an atrocious rape that ended in the murder of a female US soldier in Iraq, which the military had reported as a suicide. She pointed out that even in the handful of cases resulting in court martial and conviction, few perpetrators have served any prison time.

Two other young veterans, Kelly Dougherty and Jen Hogg, described life in the military for women today.

Sgt. Kelly Dougherty, now Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and former chair of its Board of Directors, told of a veteran who calmly described killing an Iraqi while she breast-fed her baby. To Kelly, this was just one example of the incredible disconnect veterans live with and of the brutalization that everyone in the armed forces is subjected to. She noted, however, that this is new for women, since for the first time in US history so many women are participating in combat situations.

Sgt. Jennifer Hogg of IVAW and Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) explained that women are automatically excluded from the infantry because they are considered unfit to do on-the-ground fighting. Jennifer granted that while some but not all women aren’t suitable for infantry service, some men aren’t capable either. She declared that categorically excluding women from the infantry is not only arbitrary but another of the many visible ways that women in the military are regarded as second-class citizens, ripe for abuse.

It’s not just a matter of promotions. Women are given only the basic training that everyone receives; they do not get advanced infantry training. However in the everyday reality of the Iraq occupation, women are routinely thrust into situations that require infantry skills. They then find themselves in combat situations for which they are not prepared.

However, the greatest danger that military women in Iraq and Afghanistan face is from their male peers and officers. More women there are the victims of sexual assault than of injuries from hazardous military duties. Reuters reported as far back as 1995, “Ninety percent of women under 50 who have served in the US military and who responded to a survey report being victims of sexual harassment, and nearly one-third of the respondents of all ages say they have been raped.”

Blatant sexism and misogyny are at the root of this high rate of violence against these women who just want to defend their country.

Some military training actually encourages violence thus adding greatly to the inherent violence of war. Jennifer described training while “jodies” were ringing in her ears – the cadences that sing about a soldier’s trashy girlfriend having sex with a civilian who is not as good a man as he. She first heard these chants while serving as a mechanic in the New York Army National Guard from 2000-2005. The “jodies” were crafted to engender men’s rage: at women, at non-military men and at “the other.”

According to Jennifer, some men join the army for honor but also to belong to a group that permits them to express their aggression. She questions whether such motivations are any different than those of the young men who join gangs. So, she asked, why would we be surprised when these super-aggressive men behave brutally toward Iraqi civilians or towards women?

She says most of their male counterparts view women in the military as either “dykes,” “whores,” or “bitches.” These women must cope with these grotesque distortions on a daily basis.

Kelly, who served as a medic and in a military police unit, says that misogyny is rampant and seldom countered from above. She described how bitter that is when a woman knows that the first duty of an officer is to care for those in her or his command. She is convinced that officers’ failure to protect the women serving under them has contributed fundamentally to the serious breakdown of good military operations in Iraq. Betrayal by one’s own chain of command is devastating to women, and ultimately, everyone suffers.

Kelly and Jennifer both also noted the lack of female solidarity, declaring that women simply cannot bond in that culture. (I had to remind myself that the men in this culture cannot bond with their peers to resist certain kinds of abuses either.) In August of 2006 at Camp Casey I heard such first hand accounts from returning male veterans. One watched a peer shooting Iraqi children from their vehicle, much as some boys will shoot animals. Though horrified, he says that in this environment, he was neither able to stop that marine nor could he come to the defense of a comrade who tried to stop him.

So it is not surprising that in this environment, women seldom come to one another’s defense. Women who report abuse are often punished instead of helped, creating even greater fear among their peers.

Neither Jennifer nor Kelly thinks that having more women officers at higher ranks would change anything. They say the “divide to conquer” system, which begins by conquering US recruits’ moral values, permeates the military.

Jennifer brought up another issue; as a lesbian, she knew discrimination had started when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” provisions were read to her before she signed up.

Already in the Army National Guard, she was activated for duty on September 11th. Surrounded by soldiers hugging and kissing loved ones before being deployed, Jennifer’s partner was unable to support her in the same way. By then, having already been exposed to the “jodies,” Jennifer became increasingly aware of the system’s brutality and the many injustices it perpetrates.

In every area women are not treated as equals, not respected. “The shoes for women are of poorer quality and women’s uniforms fit tightly to emphasize her body,” Jennifer told us.

Since mechanics and welders are deployed as infantry, from which women are excluded, Jennifer was not deployed as a mechanic even though she was qualified. She ultimately left the service, unable to reconcile her conscience with the treatment of minorities, the injustices, and the invasion. She now works in the GI peace movement.

Like many young people from blue-collar communities, Jennifer turned to the military for opportunities. She trained as a mechanic, a field that few women enter or consider a likely occupation for such a small, beautiful young woman.
Ann pointed out that many recruits join for the education they can get. “Almost no one joins the military because they want to kill people,” she commented. Both Kelly, who went to college, and Jennifer, who learned a trade, received their educations as a result of military service.

Traditionally, the US military has been good to its veterans, providing not only education but health care and good retirement. However my friends at Camp Casey decried the “economic draft” that exists today: working class young people with little future sign up disproportionately.

Ann suggests that if there were another kind of national service, many of these young people would never enlist. If the United States offered free post secondary education to qualified persons like other developed nations do, the number of young people who enlist would be greatly reduced.

All three women are proud of their military service. Though appalled at the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, they still feel very connected to the military. Kelly expressed sadness and disappointment that people who see her wearing her military jacket remark that is must belong to her boyfriend or husband. She served at great risk to her own life in Hungary, Croatia and Iraq and is now using her skills to stop the abuse of her service by the very people who should respect its integrity.

I would not have understood the pride these women feel about their service before I went to Camp Casey.

As my friend, Patrice Schexnayder of Texas Impact, an interfaith group working for justice, said: “The military at its best is not about weapons that destroy buildings and the life within, photographed by satellite or spy plane, and totally bloodless, all in the name of aggression. It is about staying awake and on guard, while others sleep.”

Kelly and Jennifer were key organizers of the Winter Soldier event in March. Their skillful negotiation made the session on gender in the military possible in spite of initial resistance by some of their male colleagues. They spoke of it as a beginning, an opening of the door. I think it is a major victory.

The three women veterans of this panel are true Warriors, horrified at the way the US uses their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but nonetheless willing to serve to protect us.

It was a privilege to hear these women tell their stories.

About the Author
Nancy Van Ness, founder and Director of the American Creative Dance group in New York City, is a 61 year old modern dancer who has taken up tango in recent years. Always serious about dance, she went to Buenos Aires to study with one of the greatest maestros of that form. Having spent decades in a unitard in small black box theaters making “high art,” she is now sometimes seen in slinky dresses dancing tango con alma y pasión in tango salons and at international dance concerts.

As an unexpected result of her tango dancing, she was cast as the female lead in Tango Passion, a romantic comedy set in a tango salon. Tango Passion is now being featured at film festivals, most recently at the 2007 Boston International Film Festival. Van Ness says, “It is a romantic comedy about people my age instead of young lovers. I took on the role partly to confront stereotypes about who is lovable, who is attractive, who is even visible in our culture.” Filled with many surprises, it is about a couple whose relationship has definitely not lost the spice of life.

Van Ness was, however, shocked to find that the medium works in ways she hadn’t understood before. The exhibit “Dangerous Beauty” at the Chelsea Art Museum elucidated what was troubling her about having played the role of the luscious Claudia in the film.

Van Ness created an innovative, avant garde system of dance and musical accompaniment for her company, American Creative Dance. The troupe’s dance work requires performers to be creators; they do not perform dance classics. All dancers use their own bodies to make art, they do not have an impersonal instrument such as the musician, the painter, or the writer does. But using one’s body as a tool involves risk. Dancers in this troupe create their work in plain view under the audience’s eyes. For further information please visit American Creative Dance.
Nancy Van Ness lives in New York City.

Posted in Politics, The World
14 comments on “Perceived as “Dykes, Whores, Bitches”: 1 in 3 Military Women Experience Sexual Abuse
  1. cmanika says:

    Nancy this was such an enlightening article. I thought it was here in Zimbabwe that women in the uniformed forces suffered such abuse. I felt very connected to these three former war veterans and felt that pain and frustrations. Thank you.
    Constance Manika

  2. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Constance, I am really glad to hear from you. Violence towards women seems to be a factor of armed aggression everywhere. I hate to think of the abuse of Iraqi civilian women also. As the delegates from the Asian Pacific nations called the “International Women’s Peace and Solidarity Mission in Basilan and Mindanaoa” [Philippines], that Imelda reported on in these pages said
    Peace is the braver option.” The WIP
    It is a privilege to join hands with you across the world in the effort to make peace.

  3. Kate Daniels says:

    The disconnect and brutalization abroad that the soldiers are subjected to and the lack of adequate health care here when they return is why so many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are committing suicide. Kelly’s retelling of the story of the soldier who calmly described killing an Iraqi while she breast-fed her baby is a perfect example. I am no psychiatrist but taken out of combat how does a veteran reconcile that memory back home? A report released this week by the US government’s top psychiatric researcher estimates that the number of suicides among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may exceed the combat death toll of the wars because of inadequate mental healthcare. I heard on Democracy Now! yesterday that as many as 120 veterans are committing suicide every week.
    Thank you for submitting this report. The experiences of women in the military is as bad as I imagined it would be.

  4. dsaintamant says:

    Nancy:
    I respect the service and unique experiences of all three women: COL Wright, SGT Hogg and SGT Dougherty. However, I must disagree with the one-sidedness of how these issues were presented. There are many different experiences that women in the military have and they are not all the same. Things have changed greatly in the 20 years, by my calculations, since COL Wright retired.
    My experience during 10 years as an Army officer and four years as a cadet at West Point has been very different than SGTs Hogg and Dougherty. As a cadet, I did feel that there were only three categories for women, but as an officer, I do not feel constrained that way. Are there double standards? Yes. However, recognizing that is half of the challenge to overcoming them. How you deal with them is your choice as an individual. Does it make you stronger or do you become a victim? It is your choice. The positive and negative attitudes about women that I have encountered in the Army seem to be no different than the diverse beliefs in American society in general.
    I have also experienced both sides of the bonding issue amongst women in the military. As a cadet, I was disillusioned by the “weakest link” phenomena – if you couldn’t cut it, other women tended to disassociate themselves instead of helping. As an officer, my experience has been completely different. Some of my closest friends have been female officers that I have met in the Army. I have also been fortunate to have had tremendously positive mentors, both male and female, throughout my career.
    SGT Dougherty mentioned a threat from her peers and officers. In my opinion, this is purely a deficiency in the unit leadership and command climate. Having deployed to both Kosovo and Iraq, I am familiar with some of these threats. I personally believe that if you act like a victim, chances are, you will be one. If you act sensibly and make your limits clear, you have a better chance of avoiding a situation you cannot handle. However, if you do have a bad experience, then a good chain of command will handle it properly.
    Differences in Army combat training that I see are not between men or women, but have historically been between how combat arms units (infantry, armor, etc) and support units train. The current operating environment in Iraq and Afghanistan has drastically changed ideas about training in the Army for the better. No longer can support units assume that they will not encounter combat. Every unit and every Soldier must be trained for combat. That is the reality.
    Bottom line: the experiences of women in the military are as diverse as our wonderful American society. The comments above are my personal opinions on the topic and I do not profess to speak for all women in the military.
    - MAJ Darcy Saint-Amant, US Army

  5. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Darcy:
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment on this report. I appreciate your taking the time to expand on the issues from your experiences and perspective.
    I would like especially to address your statement, “I personally believe that if you act like a victim, chances are, you will be one.”
    While I have had to learn as an adult how not to engage with people who abuse others, I do not ever want to exculpate abusers. I hold sacred the tenet that nothing any human being does should elicit cruel, degrading, or humiliating response. Surely one of the cruelest, most degrading and humiliating experiences is sexual abuse by a person from one’s own group.
    I note what seems to me a pervasive, though often unrecognized, attitude revealed by statements about women, or some of them, getting what they deserve. I also want to posit that at the base of constructive bonding among people lies a lack of tolerance for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of any human being. Once someone is seen as “other,” not like me, not adequate in some way, the solidarity is gone and the door is open to exonerate abusers.
    For more information on the psychological aspect of military training to which Jennifer refers in her remarks about the jodies, I cite an article by Penny Coleman titled War Psychology and Iraq Atrocities, from which I quote extensively.
    War Psychiatry, the army’s textbook on combat trauma, notes that “pseudospeciation, the ability of humans and some other primates to classify certain members of their own species as ‘other,’ can neutralize the threshold of inhibition so they can kill conspecifics.” Modern military training has developed carefully sequenced and choreographed elements of what many would call brainwashing to disconnect recruits from their civilian identities. The values, standards and behaviors they have absorbed over a lifetime from their families, schools, religions and communities are scorned and punished. Using cruelty, humiliation, degradation and cognitive disorientation, recruits are reprogrammed with an entirely new set of learned responses.
    “There are any number of ways that modern training methods both support violence, aggression and obedience and help to disconnect a reflex action from its moral, ethical, spiritual or social implications, but one of the best illustrations of this process is the marching chants, or “jodies,” as they are known in the services. … The following, originally a product of the Vietnam era, has been resurrected for training purposes in every war since and is an example of the kind of morale building that has been judged appropriate to the formation of an American soldier:
    “Shell the town and kill the people.
    Drop the napalm in the square.
    Do it on a Sunday morning
    While they’re on their way to prayer.
    “Aim your missiles at the schoolhouse.
    See the teacher ring the bell.
    See the children’s smiling faces
    As their schoolhouse burns to hell
    “Throw some candy to the children.
    Wait till they all gather round.
    Then you take your M-16 now
    And mow the little fuckers down.”
    That last line brought to my mind the anguished story I report of a male veteran who witnessed, without being able to intervene, a fellow marine mowing down children in Iraq.
    Certainly the armed services reflect the society as a whole. Since writing this article, I read a Reuters report by Will Dunham titled Quarter of U.S. women suffer domestic violence: CDC. If a quarter of US women suffer domestic violence, is it surprising that those in the military are subject to high levels of abuse?
    I want to plead guilty to what may appear one sidedness. The pervasiveness and persistence of violence toward women in the world goes with a sort of invisibility. If all human beings were to see this violence, we might have to do something about it. It appears to me that physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of women is subtly entrenched in our minds, our institutions, and our responses.
    The WIP held an event in early May called Making Visible the Violence to Women. The editors then chose to focus for the entire month on instances of institutionalized violence to women all over the world. The panel discussion I attended that led to this article seemed to me to be the chapter of that work which might be called Making Visible the Violence toward Women in the Military. I took hope from the efforts of the organizers and editors. I look forward to a world where women and girls are safe and where the biggest threat to women who want to help defend their country is not from the men in the military they also serve. Maybe then there would be much less aggression for anyone to have to defend her nation against?
    I am sincerely grateful, Darcy, that your own service has been free of the worst of the traumas reported by many other women and that you have risen about what you did experience. I thank you for your willingness to defend us at great risk and cost to yourself. I am sorry that what I wrote does not represent your experience. I do not, however, want to apologize for reporting what other women tell us about their experience.

  6. dsaintamant says:

    Nancy,
    Thank you for your comments. I agree that no woman, or man, deserves to be a victim of abuse. All I meant by my comment is that a target is often chosen because the abuser sees them as an easier target than someone else.
    The values that the Army instills in Soldiers are those of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. I feel that these values accurately describe the vast majority of those I have met in the military. I fully realize that some women and men have experienced abuse, disrespect and violence, but I do not think this represents the majority experience.
    Thank you for telling your side of the story and for allowing me to express my opinions as well.
    My opinions do not reflect the official poilicy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
    - MAJ Darcy Saint-Amant, Student, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, KS.

  7. PetersCT says:

    Hi Nancy,
    The negative experiences reported by COL Wright, SGT Hogg and SGT Dougherty are all unfortunate incidences that should not go unrecognized. I do appreciate these women telling their stories but have to say that as a woman who has served in the military for 18 years (11 active duty and 8 National Guard) I have nothing but GREAT things to report about my military experience. True enough, I have heard the Jody calls, and some of the jokes about women but these cadences and jokes did not cause a hostile environment for me, neither did they make me feel as if I was a member of an organization that did not respect women. The Army is an organization comprised of a mix of people from different cultures and backgrounds so it goes without saying that the Army is no safe haven. But that doesn’t make it a pit from hell either.
    Again, it is unfortunate that these women had to endure such negative experiences during their time in the Army. I have to ask whether these women reported any of these bad acts? The Army gives bi-annual Equal Opportunity (EO) training that is extemely detailed and walks all listeners through the the acts adn how to report the acts. I don’t condone such behavior and as an attorney in the Army would be the first to tell any Soldier or Officer to report such abuse so that the command can take appropriate measures to punish and or discharge those male Soldiers and Officers who perceive women in uniform in a negative light. As a 18 year veteran, I would like to think that today’s military leadership is fully committed to EO and takes the necessary steps to purge this negative activity from their units.
    I submit my story merely to get a positive experience out there to your readers, not to diminish the value of this story.
    My opinions do not reflect the official poilicy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
    - MAJ Carla T. Peters, U.S. Army

  8. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Today, Helen Benedict writes in the New York Times editorial section For Women Warriors, Deep Wounds, Little Care about the issues raised by the women veterans at the panel. Professor Benedict adds to the case that not only do one in three women in the military suffer sexual abuse, but more than seven in ten report harassment by men with whom they serve. She also points out that the level of PTSD among women who experience both combat and sexual abuse is highly elevated.
    On this Memorial Day, I give thanks for every woman in the military who has not suffered harassment and abuse from her fellows while serving and I remember and mourn for all those who have.

  9. JenHogg says:

    Thank you to the two Majors who wrote in to share their experiences.
    I think their words and attitudes are exactly that of many women in the military who see the language and assaults that happen in the military as minimal. Even civilian women think of the harassment they see around them as minimal. This changes very often when, sadly, a woman personally faces these events.
    I am fortunate that I never experienced assault in the military, but I daily heard sexist and homophobic insults. I also saw married men and women break UCMJ and carry on sexual relationships.
    MAJ Peters asks if these things are reported and I have to tell her and all the readers; NO, very often these daily things are not reported because you learn to live with them. THIS IS THE PROBLEM. As long as these words and actions are normalized woman AND men will continue to accept and perpetrate them. As long as domestic violence is seen as the end of a caree not as a very serious problem women will be encouraged not to report it. As long as lesbians fear being dishonorably discharged for rebuking and reporting sexual advances they will be silent. Many people who do report sexual assault and harassment find themselves punished, ostracized or ignored. I helped another basic trainee report being grabbed between the legs. Afterwards every male trainee that passed her called ber a bitch or a slut. Do you think she will report something the next time?
    It might be that the two women who are both officers, Majors, have military career’s that have been filled with nothing but the utmost respect. But I tend to think that is not the case. I tend to think, as is evident by their own words, that they want to value the good over the bad but this is SO dangerous to the men and women who are assaulted. I was THE SAME WAY in the military. When its your identity its harder to question it. I understand this. I hope anyone reading really really examines the words from the Majors so they can understand why these things continue to happen in the military. We are trained, as the very women who could be the target of these assaults, to blame the victims and to minimize the danger. This doesn’t mean the Majors are bad women, and I in no way am saying that. In fact I see my own former mindset in what they say and hope they use their position of influence to help those who need it, which too often can be very dangerous and detrimental to their careers.
    Both Major’s do seem to still be in the military presently as per their required disclaimer that their opinions do not reflect the official policy of the US Govt, but I’d say they very much do.

  10. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Here is a link to information on RH Reality Check about congressional hearings on sexual abuse in the military.

  11. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Just in case anyone missed it, here is a link to an article, Why Soldiers Rape, by Helen Benedict that explores the mysogyny and illegal occupation that fuel rapists among the military men serving currently.
    The “jodies” are mentioned as part of this culture.

  12. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    I read today on the Common Dreams website an Associated Press article about a Pentagon report of sexual assault in the military. The spokeswoman for the Pentagon attributes the rise to more women reporting not to more actual assault.
    There is no comment on the relationship between the mysogonistic jodies and the nature of training of soldiers and the high occurance of assault against women in the military.
    As Jen said above in her comment, as long as women are not respected on a daily basis in the military, the sexual assault will likely continue. Issuing reports is not the same thing as taking action to change the situation.

  13. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Katie Couric reported on March 18:
    “The military is increasingly issuing something called “moral waivers,” so they can enlist military personnel with felony convictions for crimes like rape and sexual assault.
    “We don’t enlist convicted rapists in the armed forces of the United States,” said Michael Dominguez, the principal under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “If there’s a consensus ‘that kid needs a second chance, I think he’s got it in him to be a solider,’ then they’ll let him into the armed forces.”
    “In fact, CBS News has learned that both the Army and Marine Corps did issue a number of “moral waivers” to enlistees with felony convictions for rape and sexual assault – something not acknowledged in a follow-up letter from Dominguez.”
    Read more of that article here
    I am glad to see this issue getting attention. I would like even more to see changes now.

  14. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Though at the time I wrote this article, there were a number of people who questioned Ann Wright’s statement that one in three women in the military were sexually assaulted, a report from the Pentagon earlier this year gives that figure. You can read more in Democracy Now

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