Gender equity at close quarters

Picture: Australian Department of DefenceIt was a shock-horror story for a slow Sunday night, but the news of a sexual scandal on board an Australian Navy ship has drawn comment from the country’s Prime Minister and his deputy, serving to highlight problems surrounding women’s role in the military.

HMAS Success has a mixed crew, in line with a gender equity policy that has counterparts in the defence establishment of many countries. This mixing of men and women is supposed to be a great thing for them and for the military. Women who hanker after risk and adventure can fulfil their desires while putting their special talents at the service of their country.

But some of the men on board Success have grown ho-hum about the privilege of having women around and the opportunities for sex that it presents, so four of them devised a betting game in which they competed to see who could have sex with the most women crewmates. They kept a written record and there were extra points for taking advantage of female officers and lesbians.

Since an Australian television channel broke the story on Sunday, the Defence Department has confirmed that four men were sent home in May from Singapore, where the ship was stationed, and that a formal inquiry is under way. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called the allegations “disturbing” and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has indicated she wants a full investigation.

Ms Gillard said that both the government and the nation had been saying for a long time that women should be able to join the army, the navy or air force. "We don't want to see anything that precludes women from having a good career in our armed forces if that is what they choose to do with their lives.”

According to Defence, the allegations came to light during “an equity and diversity health check” when women “raised a number of concerns”. If the details of the “game” are true, it showed utter contempt for the women being targeted, if not the whole female complement of the ship. Dismissal would be too good for these men; a spell in the stocks would be an appropriately shaming punishment.

But, what then? Is it a question of replacing a few bad eggs, drilling the others on the sexual harassment policy, upping the penalties -- that sort of thing? Or is there something fundamentally wrong with the military’s experiment with sexual integration?

Sexual harassment and assault have become a huge issue in the United States forces. According to an AP report last year, 15 per cent of women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have sought help from a Department of Veteran Affairs facility have screened positive for military sexual trauma, and the VA has at least 16 inpatient wards specialising in treating of such women.

Military sexual trauma means that while they were on active duty they were sexually assaulted, raped, or were sexually harassed, receiving repeated unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature. One woman, who now advocates with government on this issue, described how she was harassed while sharing a house with about 20 men while on service at an outpost in Iraq, and was traumatised by it.

One woman with 20 men? Doesn’t that illustrate how crazy this policy can get? Of course, she should have been safe with 120 men, especially men serving in what has traditionally been an honourable occupation, based on the ideal of defending what is right.

But there are strong forces working against the honour code. Military men come from the same cultural environment as other men (and women) -- one in which sex is debased to the level of personal recreation and public entertainment. Casual and short-term relationships are taken for granted, pornography is defended (by women as well as men) and consent is the only recognised rule.

It appears to be the only rule in the forces as well. There is nothing to suggest that the Australian sailors are being investigated simply for having sex with women crew members -- although US Defence surveys show that women marines are more likely than other servicewomen to experience unwanted sexual touching. Rather, the issue seems to be that the women felt demeaned when they discovered that they were the objects of a cynical game in which dollar amounts were placed on their heads and they would be material for bragging among the men.

Did the men know that their nasty little game would not only be offensive to the women -- they simply must have known that -- but would constitute a formal offence, sexual harassment, presumably? Maybe not.

If that is the case, the sexual equality policy means the authorities have put themselves in the ridiculous position of having to define a whole range of offensive sexual behaviour and/or arbitrate all the disputes that arise from the casual sex it allows to go on in its ranks. He will call it a game; she will call it harassment and an attack on her dignity. Or he will call it “having sex” and she will call it rape. And there will have to be an inquiry to sort it out. And then more time and resources may have to be spent on punitive measures, re-education and compensation.

Worse than that, in view of the fact that some personnel are married and some become pregnant, the institutions responsible for defending the homeland help to undermine the nation’s homes and families by condoning extra-marital affairs and unwed motherhood.

It is this high level stupidity, more than the low-level brutishness of the sailors in question in this particular dispute that makes one worry about the calibre of the forces and their defence readiness.

There is a place for women in a nation’s defence system, but it is not in close quarters with men on a ship. Nor is it in mixed quarters at the front line of battle. If that is what Ms Gillard and others of her persuasion mean by “a good career in the armed forces” they really are talking through their hats.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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