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Military sexual misconduct: Is there any hope for real change?

Comments this week from Canada’s top general have left some wondering whether military attitudes about sexual harassment can really be changed.

'You need to change the culture before the behaviour changes,' expert says

Gen. Tom Lawson, Chief of Canada's Defence Staff, is under fire after attributing the problem of sexual misconduct in the military to biological wiring. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The ongoing issue of sexual harassment has loomed over the Canadian Armed Forces for many years, and comments this week from Canada's top military official has left some wondering whether attitudes can really be changed.

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson said the military is still dealing with sexual harassment because men are "biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others."

But many aren't buying that line of reasoning, and one expert says Lawson's comments reveal a pervasive culture of sexism and misogyny that leaves little hope for real, meaningful change.

Canada's military is 15 per cent female, with a higher proportion in the reserves. (Dan Kosmayer/Shutterstock)
"It shows a pretty deep-seated assumption about men's sexuality and a lack of understanding and a lack of leadership," says Ashley Bickerton, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Social Sciences. Her doctoral thesis was on sexual violence and militarized masculinity.

Lawson's comments also reveal a deep denial among the upper ranks that sexism, misogyny and rape culture are the root causes of the problem, she says.

"You need to change the culture before the behaviour changes."

Can things really change?

Earlier this year, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps issued a report into sexual misconduct in the Canadian military, calling it "endemic" and blaming it on a pervasive macho culture where the leadership tolerates abuse and leaves women in fear of reporting it.

Former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps blamed sexual misconduct in Canada's military on a pervasive macho culture. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Out of Deschamps' 10 recommendations, Gen. Lawson accepted two outright and eight in principle.

Part of the problem of implementing real change is that military culture is fundamentally based on violence, aggression and dominance, Bickerton says, noting war's historic connections to colonization, rape and an "us-versus-them" mentality.

"There's something profoundly violent about militarization," she says.

A closed culture

The military's emphasis on strength, toughness and emotional resilience also makes it difficult to tackle its sexual misconduct problem.

"One of the ways it shapes masculinity is suppressing emotions," she says. "So how do you support survivors of sexual violence?"

Changing the mindset takes a lot longer. It's more of an education process.– Grazia Scoppio, associate professor at the Royal Military College of Canada

Because these values are so deep-rooted, Bickerton is pessimistic that there can be sweeping change within the institution. But she sees hope for improvements such as creating support mechanisms for survivors.

"This is not going to be an easy task. People have been indoctrinated," she says. "It's kind of at the core of their operations."

But Grazia Scoppio, an associate professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, a civilian member of the faculty, says the military has made efforts to be more inclusive and integrated.

Unlike the United States, all occupations in the Canadian Armed Forces, including combat roles, are open to women. "In that regard we are leaders, and that should be acknowledged," she says.  

But when it comes to changing attitudes about women and sexual misconduct in the military, she recognizes it's never an easy undertaking in a closed culture.

"Changing the mindset takes a lot longer," she says. "It's more of an education process."

Sexual harassment education, not training

Scoppio points to the Canadian Armed Forces' early attempts to introduce diversity training in the 1990s through a program called SHARP, Standard for Harassment and Racism Prevention.

"By all accounts this SHARP training was a failure," she says. "It was basically a canned sexual harassment training."

Maj.-Gen. Chris Whitecross, commander of the armed forces strategic response team on sexual misconduct, said in May that the military accepted the recommendation of an independent organization for victims in principle because the military needs to learn more about its options. (Canadian Press)
Instead, she advocates a "lifelong educational approach" that isn't just a one-time, "checkmark-in-a-box" type of exercise.

Bickerton also calls for more education — taught by experts outside the military culture — and emphasizes the need for a sex-positive approach, where woman can talk about sex without being alienated or "slut-shamed" by their peers.

But before that can even take place, Bickerton says the military needs to acknowledge the problem lies within the culture, not just with "a few bad apples."

She says, "They can have these conversations ... consider the ways that they're biased. They need to start checking their defensive mechanisms and be open to reflecting."

Need for more diversity

Along with education, Scoppio points to a need for more diversity within the ranks. Women represent only 15 per cent of all personnel in the Canadian Armed Forces, creating a male-dominated perspective in decision-making.

She wants to see a push to bring in more qualified women, as well as minorities, and has advocated the creation of a diversity centre in the military.

"Obviously, we need women in leadership positions, because you need the role models," Scoppio says. "When you want to change a culture, that is part of it."

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