Women in combat units: Could it reduce sexual assault in the military?

Ending the ban on women in combat removes a barrier to gender equality and could create more respect for women within the ranks, some say. Sexual assault is a major problem for the military.

Erik De Castro/Reuters/File
Spc. Erica Taliaferro from 549th MP Company, Task Force Bronco eats a sandwich inside an armored vehicle in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan last year. Women will now be allowed in combat units.

As the military moves toward officially allowing women in battle, top US officers say they hope that lifting the ban will have an impact on a problem that continues to plague the military: sexual assault within its ranks.

Half the women deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan reported being sexually harassed, and one quarter said that they were sexually assaulted – ranging from rape to unwanted touching – during their deployment, according to new research from the Department of Veterans Affairs, based on anonymous surveys of female service members.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that he is hopeful that making the combat roles of women official will create a greater environment of respect for women, which in turn may have an impact on instances of sexual harassment and assault. 

“I believe it's because we've had separate classes of military personnel, at some level,” he said at a press conference Thursday.

General Dempsey was quick to add that sexual assault is “far more complicated than that – but when you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that's designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment."

“I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

It is a sentiment that is echoed among advocates for victims of sexual assault. 

“When you have legalized discrimination against women, there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a link there,” says Anu Baghwati, a former company commander in the Marine Corps

“I experienced it firsthand as a woman officer in the Marines. There’s a constant reminder by your peers that you’re not as strong, you’re not as competent, which is not based on your actual, but your perceived performance,” she says. “And I think women would doubt themselves a lot less.”

Critics of women in combat express concerns, however, that the move could actually make women more vulnerable to sexual assault by putting them in closer contact with men in situations where they will have little privacy.

But Anne Coughlin, who has advised plaintiffs suing the military for integration into combat units, thinks “just the opposite is true.” 

“I don’t mean to say for a minute that this will all solve the problem, but in a culture where there’s hierarchy and all of the people that have power over women are men, it creates a culture in which some are going to be inclined to abuse their power,” says Professor Coughlin, who teaches at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Others agree that these are positive, but they say that long-term efforts to prevent sexual assault come down to leadership.

“This is a predator problem, not a female problem,” says Colleen Bushnell, formerly a staff sergeant in the US Air Force, who was sexually assaulted in 2003 while at Lackland Air Force Base.

“That’s an abuse of authority, that’s a fundamental breakdown in the culture – it’s about translating the core values of the military into the actions of leadership,” adds Ms. Bushnell, now a member on the advocacy board of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault. “This is a serious problem that cannot be fixed with one solution. There will be many solutions, and it may take many years for the culture to transform to where we would like it to be.”

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