Comments on Gender and Iraqi Prison Abuse

from a Reader

May 6, 2004

I've studied military gender issues for about 25 years now, and it's clear that many military women feel pressured to conform (and perform) like "one of the guys." Sexual banter is de riguer among military personnel, despite multiple programs aimed at curbing sexual harassment, and most military personnel are sexually active young adults far from home and partners and forbidden under military law to "fraternize" (although of course they do, and sometimes forcibly, as the incidence of rape reports earlier this year indicates) so there is a situation of extreme sexual focus cum deprivation that gets channeled into inappropriate and sometimes violent and/or sadistic sexual behavior.

Sex scandals seem endemic on US military bases/personnel (Aberdeen, USAF Academy/Tailhook) in part because these are young people living and working in close quarters, many away from home for the first time, under the supervision of people not much older than themselves, and this is magnified on deployment by the context of threat/fear, material deprivation. Clearly in the case of guards there is an additional power dimension in their direct control over the prisoners and perhaps an added frustration at being cooped up (and vulnerable to mortar attack, as happened recently) rather than "in the field." Combat positions are the most highly regarded in the military profession, and not serving in such a position on a deployment may add to the frustration. Of course, the US laws excluding women from combat were lifted after the first Gulf War in 1991, but each service sets its own regulations, and women remain excluded from direct combat assignments and the elite combat units (Rangers, Seals), so "proving oneself" a soldier is more challenging.

I think service women as well as service men who are from racial/ethnic minority groups would have a very difficult time not "going along with the game," given the pressure they feel to conform in what is still often a very gender/race hostile environment. The point is to fit in, to follow along, to not be conspicuous: Pvt. Jessica Lynch wanted to be seen as "a soldier," not a female soldier.