When Sexual Harassment Hits The Military

When Sexual Harassment Hits The Military

It’s no new thing to see women in the British Armed Forces. From the iconic Rosie the Riveter to celebrated modern heroines (more on that later), we’ve come a long way. But, did you know that, until as late as last year, there were still some military roles closed off to women? When we’re so used to seeing women slay in all walks of life – even the dangerous and highly physical roles offered by the Armed Forces – it’s shocking to find out that it was only in 2018 that the entirety of the British military became open to women.

In 2017, the Royal Air Force opened its ground-fighting force – and consequently their entire staff complement – to women. The British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines vowed to do the same. In August 2018, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines came through, and, in December 2018, the Army followed suit.

Celebrating women in the Armed Forces

About time too. The truth is, women have played an instrumental part in military life from the very beginning. From taking unofficial roles as cooks, nurses and seamstresses to becoming official members of the forces as early as 1696, women have been behind many of the success stories of our military.  

Through their dedication and bravery, servicewomen have also created success stories of their own. As the recent Lost Heroines campaign highlights, while it’s important to recognise the extent of sexual harassment in the British military, it’s equally important to set the spotlight on the incredible contribution women have made and the impact they have had on the British forces.

For example, in World War II, women supported troops at the then top-secret Bletchley Park serving as cryptanalysts, code clerks, traffic analysts, linguists, dispatch riders and operators of the cutting-edge COLOSSUS, the world’s first computer. Four years after the war ended, women became officially recognised as a permanent part of the British Armed Forces, and, in 1992, became integrated into regular units.

In fact, there are countless tales of heroic servicewomen who have made a considerable – and sometimes life-and-death – difference to the Armed Forces. Take, for example, Captain Flora Sandes who was the only British woman to officially serve as a combat soldier in World War I. She worked her way up to the rank of Sergeant Major and eventually to Captain, during which time she was seriously wounded by a grenade in hand-to-hand combat. The stories of many more women continue to emerge. In July 2017, SSAFA – a charity for the Armed Forces – celebrated 100 years of women in the Armed Forces by showcasing some of the heroic women and veterans that have contributed to the success of the military. This includes women like Major General Susan Ridge who became the Army’s first female General following a promotion in 2015, making her the highest-ranking female officer in the Army.

Discrimination for women in the Armed Forces

But, while all these stories show progress has been made in leaps and bounds – and that women have proved heroism is a gender-neutral noun – one aspect where the Armed Forces are still lacking is in their treatment of women. We’re still hearing stories about the discriminatory attitudes towards women from within the Forces themselves, and it leaves a sorry situation for any woman who wants to serve her country.

We’re pretty used to seeing women slay in all walks of life, but we’re also painfully aware of the discrimination, double standards and the constant battle women face as they demand a place at the table. And, according to the military’s own records, servicewomen are significantly more likely than servicemen to experience all forms of sexual harassment. While women make up only 10% of the Armed Forces, they’re forced to make 20% of the complaints through the military’s complaints system.

It’s disconcerting to say the least.

Rebecca Crookshank shares her story of military harassment

Rebecca Crookshank has been a prominent force in bringing these important issues to the forefront. Crookshank is a writer and visual artist whose horrific experiences in the Royal Air Force (RAF) formed the basis of her critically-acclaimed play Whisky Tango Foxtrot.

During her time in the Royal Air Force (RAF) Crookshank experienced first-hand a darker side to the military that she’d only ever heard rumours about before. When she joined the RAF at age 17, she was looking to emulate her Royal Marine father and grandfather and to experience life outside of her small town.

“I’m really proud of leaving home, literally days after my 17th birthday, to join the Armed Forces,” she said, although her experience quickly turned sour when she was told she’d be sent to the Falkland Islands for a four-month detachment. “I’d heard stories about the girls that had gone up there,” she says, “and I was already making my protest heard. I just had a bad feeling about it.”

As Crookshank arrived on the mountain via helicopter, she was greeted by “a line of blokes mooning me on the heliport” – a crude welcome to what would become weeks of constant bullying and sexual harassment. On that very first night, she was subjected to a humiliating initiation ceremony, something she’d heard about from other girls who had been sent to the Falkland Islands. She happened to have left her camera in the room, and later found that someone had taken photos of her harrowing experience that night.

“That set the tone, really,” Crookshank explains, adding, “I was subjected to insistent and relentless harassment, much of it fuelled by the free-flowing alcohol. At one point, I was cable-tied to a bed.”  

What’s even more worrying than the behaviour of the soldiers in question was the RAF’s response to Crookshank’s complaint. “When I made a complaint,” says Crookshank, “the flight lieutenant who was in charge insisted on having a meeting with me in my bedroom. My private space; the only space that was just for me and felt safe. He told me I needed to “suck it up and stick it out” – and offered me a flight on the Tornado F3 in exchange instead.”

To this date, the RAF has offered no further comment on her case.

We need more women in the military

Rebecca Crookshank’s story is mirrored in the Army’s latest Sexual Harassment report, which found that “there still appear to be significant barriers to speaking out about sexual harassment; the most significant being the perceived stigma of making a complaint.” When women speak out against the sexual harassment, bullying and other forms of discrimination they’ve been subject to, they often find themselves facing an even tougher experience specifically because they chose to speak out.

Unfortunately, the current situation is further compounded by only 10.2% of the military being comprised of women. As the Army’s report conceded, “the ratio of men to women, have to some extent enabled these [discriminatory] views to perpetuate and become part of the military culture.”

Encouraging women to join the Armed Forces is a tough call considering the discriminatory behaviour they might face when they get in. But, it’s only by increasing the involvement of strong women in the British Armed Forces that we can hope to redress this imbalance. If you’re interested in learning more about the incredible contribution women have made – and can make – in the military, do spend some time reading through Bolt Burdon Kemp’s piece on the issue.

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