Women make up about 11% of the UK military (1), however, there is limited investigation on the impact of adversity women experience during their service, and even more so in reference to sexual harassment and assault. Sexual harassment, violence, and abuse continue to be very prominent issues in the military. Until systematic change is applied, the institutional failures will only contribute to the issue.
Anonymous research with 750 women veterans found that 22.5% reported sexual harassment, and 5.1% sexual assault (1). The official Sexual Harassment Survey of 2021 accounts 35% of servicewomen reported a ‘particularly upsetting experience’ in the previous 12 months (2) – ranging from unwanted sexual touching to rape. Although this may be analysed as a positive increase in the reporting of sexual violence and abuse in the military, this statistic only reflects disclosure in the confidence of an anonymous survey. The survey notes very few formally report their experiences due to fears of ‘perceived negative repercussions of making a complaint’. There is strong evidence that the numbers reported are merely the tip of the iceberg, as research shows that more than 80% of Military Sexual Violence (MSV) survivors do not report (3). The gaps and inconsistencies found are exacerbated by institutions such as the military that have an entrenched culture of nonreporting.
The idea that the perpetrators of MSV are uncharacteristic of “good” service members falls apart when looking at these statistics as well as certain instances that have received media attention. Some relevant examples include North Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner report of 13 sexual offenses at the Army Foundation college between July 2022, and August 2023 – including nine reports of rape, two of sexual assault, and two of voyeurism (4). Further, the internal army inquiry after a 19-year-old soldier took her life in 2021 revealed she had been subjected to sexual harassment from her boss. This report exposed the generalised sexual behaviour towards female soldiers at the Larkhill Garrison. Although the report admitted “It is almost certain this was a causal factor in her death”, it also emphasized an “unhealthy approach to alcohol” may also have contributed to the death (5). This last remark continues to avoid directly addressing the widely spread issue of sexual violence and assault in the military, and the grave consequences on the lives of those subjected to it.
Generalised sexual behaviour remains a common experience, with evidence reporting men are less likely to find them offensive than in 2018 (2). This shows the lack of impact of the Wigston and Gray reports, with researchers assuming this level of tolerance is due to personnel being increasingly accepting the behaviours as ‘banter’ or resigning themselves to it being ‘just the way it is’ (6). And for those who make an official complaint, the institution continues to fail them. In 2018, 70% were dissatisfied with the outcome, 75% said they had negative consequences, and 98% reported feeling uncomfortable at work – with almost all survivors feeling humiliated (7). This sheds light on the toxic environment survivors must come back to, where they do not feel protected by the institution and colleagues, rising the risks of retraumatisation.
Survivors of sexual violence in the military play a crucial role in challenging the prevailing narrative surrounding the issue. Giving survivors a voice, and positioning them as empowered experts, not only helps them through the process of healing but also models paths towards overcoming adversity (3). It is crucial to begin to reshape perceptions, linking instances of sexual violence to systematic and cultural norms within the service. Supporting survivors to redefine their experiences in more empowering ways helps to counteract the damaging emphasized gendered norms of vulnerability, which can perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
The military’s failure to address these crimes seriously and to punish offenders adequately highlights that the issue of sexual violence in service is not solely the fault of errant individuals. Both conscious and sub-conscious behaviour, microaggression, and intimidation must be challenged to tackle the bigger issue. The deep-seated cultural and systematic norms must be challenged to achieve a broader cultural shift within the military toward understanding, support, and justice.
M. Tolosa Tejedor
(3) Valerie N. Wieskamp (2019) “I’m Going Out There and I’m Telling This Story”: Victimhood and Empowerment in Narratives of Military Sexual Violence, Western Journal of Communication, 83:2, 133-150, DOI: 10.1080/10570314.2018.1502891