Rape Culture and the Military – Questions and Answers


The has been lots of talk the last two weeks about sexual violence and the military. The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres wrote some answers to common questions that we get asked about rape culture.

What is the big deal about “minor” swearing or sexual jokes? How is this “rape culture”?

Sexual violence cannot be divided from a broader context – one in which the victim-survivor, the violation itself (or threat of it), and the offender exist in a larger system of social norms, values and relations.

Many prevailing or “accepted” societal attitudes justify, tolerate, normalize and minimize sexual violence against women and girls[1]. This phenomenon is referred to as rape culture[2]. But it’s not just about rape: it starts with jokes and minor comments that put another person down in a sexually demeaning way.

Further exacerbating (and reproducing) rape-culture values is the reality that many legal systems in the world function to minimize or ignore acts of sexual violence. This gives the impression that sexual violence is not a big deal. Timely examples of this global reality include the Democratic Republic of Congo, where sexual assault is regularly employed as a means of political and territory weaponry[3]; the history of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in residential schools in Canada; and the apathy of politicians, police and judiciary towards rape victims in India, as evidenced by epidemic episodes of sexual violence in New Delhi, India[4].

These attitudes and beliefs impact rates of sexual violence against women and girls differently than men and boys. Consider, for example:

  • a 2011 summary on police reported crime, which found that sexual crimes were by far the most common offence committed against girls[5]
  • it is estimated that over 80% of women who are sexually assaulted do not report due to humiliation or fear of re-victimization in the legal process[6]
  • girls are sexually assaulted by a family member at a rate close to 4 times that of boys; and that sexual assaults against children in families “overwhelmingly” (97%) involve a male relative[7]
  • Comparably, in a 2004 report, males made up 29% of child victims, 12% of youth victims and just 8% of adult victims[8]
  • Women and minorities “experience different crime patterns”[9], including sexual violence, than do men
  • Women and young women from marginalized racial, sexual and socioeconomic groups are more vulnerable to being targeted for sexual violence[10].

When it comes to sexual misconduct or harassment, a common misconception about sexual harassment is that it is a situation of sexual misconduct alone, or of unrequited attraction or sexual desire. On the contrary, patterns of sexual harassment typically reflect cultural norms associated with a certain space: i.e. a workplace, school environment or public space.

Often, sexual harassment operates as a way of asserting and re-asserting gender, racial, age and class hierarchies within a certain space than it does as a “romantic” misunderstanding or misconduct between one individual and another. Through this lens, it is not surprising to find that sexual harassment, overall, is “more prevalent in organizations characterized by larger power differentials between organizational levels”, is more frequently experienced by women in male-dominated work contexts; and is found to be more of a problem in settings “where cultural norms are associated with…posturing and where the denigration of feminine behaviors is sanctioned”[11].

Studies have identified the ways in which sexual harassment functions to protect one groups’ privileges (to a certain space, role or position, let’s say), while keeping those from ‘outsider’ gender, racial or age groups away. Some examples of this include the following:

  • An Afro-Canadian woman sexually harassed by both white male and female coworkers carried the unspoken expectation that she should ‘know her place’[12] in the workplace
  • In a study of 31 women who had left the combat arms of the Canadian Forces – a division where women’s participation has only occurred since the 1980s — women described their former working environment as one where women received messages of nonacceptance, and where inconsistent and subjective performance standards were applied to women[13].

What about women who lie about sexual assault or harassment in order to get a man into trouble?

There are many social misconceptions (“myths”) concerning sexual assault. Much of these myths suggest that innocent men are accused of sexual assault and women often lie about it to get revenge, for their own benefit, or because they feel guilty about having sex[14]. In reality, the rate of false reporting for sexual assault is no different from any other crime.

To be clear, false allegations of sexual assault are not a common social problem. What is a common social problem is:

  1.  The reality that survivors of sexual assault are regularly not believed or supported when they disclose their experiences of violation and
  2.  offenders are not held accountable for their actions.

    In reality, the majority of all reported sexual assault cases are simply not reported at all (less than 10%)[15] – and those that are reported are not always resolved through the criminal justice system. Due to the limits of the criminal justice system response, few of those initially charged with sexual assault actually see convictions[16].

For these and other reasons, those who report sexual assault do not benefit financially, socially or otherwise from coming forward.

If there is a process in place to handle any complaints of sexual misconduct in military and other settings, why don’t women use it?

It isn’t always as easy as it looks.

There are many contexts of sexual assault victimization and perpetration which impact sexual assault reporting, disclosures to formal reporting systems, and survivor-victims’ willingness to share their experiences:

  • Many survivors do not report due to stigma, embarrassment, self-blame, a fear of not being believed, and concern for repercussions in their personal relationships – particularly when the offender is a friend, family member, acquaintance or co-worker.
  • The realities of sexual assault reporting, and our criminal justice system’s effectiveness in holding offenders accountable deter survivors from accessing formal reporting processes.
  • Today, conviction rates are very low, which de-validates the experiences of survivors; and works to suggest that sexual assault is a rare crime.
  • In reality, the majority of all reported sexual assault cases are simply not reported at all
  • Too often, a “victims’ apparent lack of resistance becomes the focus of assessment and intervention”[17] in court and other reporting procedures. This is a problematic approach to understanding and substantiating sexual violence
  • The credibility of victim-survivors, is frequently questioned when reporting sexual assault[18]
  • The Canadian criminal justice system − a system based largely on verbal testimony, physical evidence, and the credibility of the complainant − commonly proves less accessible to those assaulted by an offender that is known to them (the majority of child sexual abuse cases)[19], historical cases, and complainants involved in substance use, in conflict with the law, or other high-risk activities.
  • In situations of harassment, the perpetrator is usually known to the victim. Like other situations of sexualized violence, this makes reporting more difficult [20] [21]. Acquaintances, friends, co-workers or colleagues are more likely to use tricks, verbal pressure, threats, negative consequences, or victim-blaming rhetoric (i.e. “You know you wanted this”; “If you tell about what happened here, you will be in trouble”) during episodes of sexual coercion and harassment[22]. This impacts a victim’s ability to resist or report what happened.
  • Rape culture, myths and misconceptions about sexual violence continue to make it hard for survivors of sexual harassment to share their stories. Social misconceptions include the myth that innocent men are commonly accused of sexual violence, and women lie about it to get revenge, for their own benefit, or because they feel guilty about having sex[23]. Myths can create a climate in which the impacts are minimized and perpetrators are excused for their actions.

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Many survivors of sexual harassment minimize their experiences for various reasons. Studies show that different women – particularly those who have experienced prior sexual violence, ongoing social marginalization, or who face complicated reporting concerns – identify sexual harassment differently. This includes minimizing it, or ignoring it completely.

Last, there are perceived and real repercussions to disclosing sexual harassment. Oftentimes, survivors do not disclose sexual violence because they are embarrassed or do not want anyone to know[24]. Harassment survivors often worry that once a formal support is contacted, everyone in the community, workplace or school will know[25].

Others fear (or find) that their disclosures do not result in the outcomes they want: as was noted in the Ghomeshi case, one CBC employee “said she was afraid to speak out, while the other said she raised her concerns with a supervisor, but that the conversation went nowhere”[26]. Those who experience sexual harassment – especially in work and school settings — fear reprisal or retaliation from the harasser, colleagues or their employer. You can imagine the repercussions for survivors in military settings, who may be sharing information or reporting on workplace colleagues, including those who are above them in their chain of command.

But does it really happen in the military?

Research speaks to the realities of violence against women in the military. Civilian spouses are often isolated (frequent moving, language and the closed nature of military life). For example, “abusive members [may] instruct their spouses not to disclose their problems and not to consult such professionals as military chaplains, social workers, and Family Resource Centre counsellors” [27]. The Canadian forces policy on woman abuse includes the possibility that with a criminal conviction, promotion consideration is affected.

In addition, numerous studies over the years of sexual violence and the military reveal that sexual harassment, misconduct and other forms of sexual violence continue to be a problem. Formal reporting by victims remains low, for many reasons:

Underreporting has been attributed to women believing that the formal reporting process will not be useful to them, to concerns that they would be labeled a troublemaker or whistleblower or to beliefs that their complaint would lead to job termination (Marin & Guadagno, 1999). Notably, while it may be easier for women to discuss experiences of sexual harassment with researchers conducting studies of harassment, compared to reporting the harassment to authorities, women may nevertheless still have concerns about informally reporting their harassment even to researchers (e.g., discomfort in sharing personal and sensitive information with researchers) or may not perceive or label their experiences as constituting harassment, making the underreporting of harassment a potential issue even for survey research. Such problems may complicate comparisons of harassment over time, across studies, across nations, or even across diverse occupations [28].

Other current Canadian studies of sexual violence in the military include:

  • Noémi Mercier and Alec Castonguay (MacLean’s, May 2014)’s Our military’s disgrace:
    An investigation uncovers the sexual violence plaguing our soldiers—and a military hierarchy with its own justice system, and its own rules. Online: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/our-militarys-disgrace/
  • Tom Lawson’s commissioned inquiry by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps on the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military:
    The report is 100 pages long and is based on hundreds of interviews with military personnel and others, was released last week. Media reports note that, in light of the report, “The military will be chastised for allowing an environment where language, behaviour, and attitudes of sexual innuendo, stratification and victimization have become so prevalent the institution has become numb to them”. Read the full report here: http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2070308-era-final-report-april-20-2015-eng.html


[1] World Health Organization. Understanding and addressing violence against women. Online: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/77433/1/WHO_RHR_12.35_eng.pdf)

[2] See also: Hermann, D. The Rape Culture. Printed in Women: A Feminist Perspective (ed. Jo Freeman). Mcgraw Hill, 1994. Retrieved 18 October 2011. Available online: http://homepage.smc.edu/delpiccolo_guido/Soc1/soc1readings/rape%20culture_final.pdf

[3] McKenzie, D. UNICEF. Even where fighting has ended, sexual violence scars children and women in DR Congo. Online: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/drcongo_35223.html

[4] Mahapatra, D. The Times of India. Government must ensure healthcare, rehab and justice for each rape victim. Online: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Government-must-ensure-healthcare-rehab-and-justice-for-each-rape-victim/articleshow/17825599.cms

[5] Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Released on February 25, 2013. Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends:15

[6] METRAC. Sexual Assault Statistics Sheet. Online: http://www.metrac.org/resources/downloads/sexual.assault.statistics.sheet.pdf

[7] Statistics Canada, as quoted in DeKeseredy, W. Understanding Violence Against Women and Children: The Need for a Gendered Analysis. Presented at: Critical Connections symposium, Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, March 2010.

[8] Juristat Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Sexual Offenses in Canada. 2004: 1

[9] Whalen, M. and Karen P. Fowler-Lese, Jill S. Barber, Elizabeth Nutt Williams, Ann B. Judge, Johanna E. Nilsson, and Kozue Shibcizaki. “Counseling Practice With Feminist-Multicultural Perspectives”. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. 2004, Vol. 32, 379

[10] Wolfe and Chiodo, CAMH, 2008, p. 3.

[11] McDonald. P, and Sara Charlesworth. December 2012. Framing sexual harassment through media representations. Women’s Studies International Forum 37 (2013) 95–103: 96.

[12] Lester, T. 2002. Race, Sexuality, and the Question of Multiple, Marginalized Identities in U.S. and European Discrimination Law. Gender Nonconformity, Race, and Sexuality: Charting the Connections. University of Wisconsin Press: 87.

[13] David & Thomas, 1998, as quoted in: Gill, R. and Angela R. Febbraro. 2013. Experiences and Perceptions of Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Forces Combat Arms. Violence Against Women 19(2) 269–287: 272.

[14] Sexual Assault Centre Kingston. Busting Myths. Online: http://www.sackingston.com/Default.aspx?pageId=857971;

And The Learning Network. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document. May 2012: 14.

[15] METRAC. Sexual Assault Statistics Sheet. Online: http://www.metrac.org/resources/downloads/sexual.assault.statistics.sheet.pdf

[16] The Learning Network. The Network Comes to Life. May 2012: 2. Available online: http://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/sites/learningtoendabuse.ca.vawlearningnetwork/files/LN_Newsletter_May_2012_Issue_1.pdf

[17] Coates, L. and Allan Wade. “Telling it Like it Isn’t: Obscuring Perpetrator Responsibility for Violent Crime”. Discourse & Society 2004: 15, 503

[18] Vopni, V. “Young Women’s Experiences with Reporting Sexual Assault to Police” in Canadian Woman Studies 25 (1,2) (Winter/Spring 2006), 110

[19] Police data show that girls were sexually assaulted by a family member at a rate close to 4 times that of boys. Sexual assaults against children in families “overwhelmingly” (97%) involve a male relative (See Statistics Canada, as quoted in W. DeKeseredy, 2010)

[20] Randall. M, (2011) The Treatment of Consent in Canadian Sexual Assault Law. The Equality Effect: www.theequalityeffect.org

[21]Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, 2013, Best Practices for Investigating and Prosecuting Sexual Assault. http://justice.alberta.ca/programs_services/criminal_pros/Documents/SexualAssaultHandbook-PoliceCrown.pdf

[22] Hakvag, H. Does Yes Mean Yes?: Exploring Sexual Coercion in Normative Heterosexuality. Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme. Volume 28, Number 1. York University Publication: 122

[23] Sexual Assault centre Kingston. Busting Myths. Online: http://www.sackingston.com/Default.aspx?pageId=857971;

And The Learning Network. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document. May 2012: 14.

[24] Thompson, M., Sitterle, D., Clay, G. & Kingree, J. (2007). Reasons for not reporting victimizations to the police: Do they vary for physical and sexual incidents? Journal of American College Health, 55(5), 277-282.

[25] Dylan, A., Regehr, C., & Alaggia, R. (2008). And justice for all? Aboriginal victims of sexual violence. Violence Against Women, 14, 678- 696.

[26] CBC News. November 4, 2014. More workplace allegations made against Jian Ghomeshi. Online: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/more-workplace-allegations-made-against-jian-ghomeshi-1.2822962

[27] Family Violence and the Military Community research teams of the Muriel McQueen Ferguson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick and the RESOLVE Violence and Abuse Research Centre at the University of Manitoba, 2000, retrieved on July 28, 2014 at:   http://www.unb.ca/fredericton/arts/centres/mmfc/_resources/pdfs/familyviolmilitaryreport.pdf

[28] Gill, R. and Angela R. Febbraro. Experiences and Perceptions of Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Forces Combat Arms. Violence Against Women 19(2) 269–287© 2013 Government of Canada: 271.


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