Do Military Cultures Like The Secret Service Legitimize Abuse?

Much of the media coverage of the recent Secret Service scandal in Colombia has focused on the “boys will be boys” logic and the potential danger to our national security, but Corey Barr says too little attention has been given to what these events say about power relations in military cultures.

I have to admit, before I started writing this article, I hadn’t even really looked at the news on the Secret Service Agent “scandal.” I can blame it on lack of time, but the real reason was a foreseeing of the inevitable arguments that come up when these “scandals” come out.

In reading a bit of the media coverage, many of my fears have been confirmed. Much of the outrage about this scandal is around the fact that the Secret Service agents might have exposed themselves and the President to security threats. The other main area of focus is the impact the scandal has on President Obama in an election year. While these are important points, I’m struck by (but not surprised about) the lack of discussion about gender roles, power relations, and institutional cultures that legitimize such behavior.

When I first saw the story, I immediately connected it with the numerous sexual exploitation and abuse scandals that have faced United Nations Peacekeepers in a number of countries, most recently with Uruguayan peacekeepers in Haiti and in many other countries. Perhaps I was wrong to make these mental connections given that the issues and context are varied, but let me try to explain.

While the issues are varied, to me this recent scandal is just another example of how military cultures legitimize the establishment of violent hierarchies, particularly when it comes to women and foreigners. The Secret Service agents’ involvement with high-class escorts is certainly different than peacekeepers’ involvement in sex trafficking in Bosnia. But I think it speaks to a dehumanization that is condoned in military cultures, which can put foreign women (and men) in vulnerable positions. We also saw this with the sexual assaults on prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this more recent scandal is the fact that the sex worker who broke the news of the scandal did so by raising her voice and refusing to accept lower payment than she and the Secret Service agent had agreed upon. This certainly does not fit the image that is often portrayed of the foreign sex worker, forced into prostitution to survive, barely making ends meet and accepting whatever amount of money is paid. No. This is a woman who describes herself as a high-class escort and is willing to stand up for herself in the face of exploitation and abuse, even going so far as to looking into taking legal action since the Secret Service agent acted aggressively toward her.

Despite this, what is also interesting is how the press chooses to describe this high-class escort. Every description I have seen has inevitably included that she is a single mother. Is this because she doesn’t fit the stereotypical model of someone who goes into prostitution and the press feels the need to present her as disadvantaged in some way? This implicitly says that sex work is not chosen freely, but is instead made necessary by circumstances.

As has been reported in the news, the United States armed forces face numerous issues with regard to gender equality and women’s rights, both inside the armed forces and in engaging with populations outside the armed forces. One issue is the participation of women. There are increasing numbers of women in the armed forces as well as in the Secret Service, with women making up about 25 percent of Secret Service employees in 2012. Additionally, in February of this year, the Pentagon issued rules that women will be allowed to serve in jobs that are closer to the front lines.

Despite their increasing numbers, women in the armed forces often face sexual harassment and assault by other service members. In fact, more than 3,000 women reported sexual assault last year. Given the power issues around reporting sexual assault, this number likely only provides a glimpse of what’s happening. The Pentagon estimates that there may have actually been 19,000 attacks.

Following the “boys will be boys logic,” some commentators, such as Fox News contributor Liz Trotta, suggest that the high level of sexual assault is directly correlated to the increase in women in the armed forces. She cites the apparent inevitability of sexual assault when men and women are in close contact. While I would certainly agree that opportunism has a role in sexual exploitation and abuse, I think we need to ask questions about the military cultures that implicitly and explicitly condone such violence whether it be inside or outside military institutions.

It is, at the very least, rewarding to see that the Secret Service agents are being held accountable for their actions. This has so often been lacking with UN peacekeeping personnel. I am also pleased to see the government’s new plan to address sexual assault perpetrated in the armed forces. The plan focuses strongly on the effective investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases, including the gathering of evidence. Additional emphasis is placed on training and education on sexual assault, particularly for new members of the armed forces.

While these are both important elements, further reflection and action is needed to address the deep-seated violent masculinities that are embedded in military cultures that legitimize exploitation and abuse both within and outside the armed forces. Otherwise, we will continue to see these scandals crop up both at home and abroad.

Corey Barr works as an independent consultant on gender, peace and security issues. She’s worked on issues of gender and security sector reform, sexual violence in armed conflict, transitional justice, and gender and armed violence. Originally from small-town New Hampshire, Corey is currently living the life in the Dominican Republic, interspersing beach trips and growing tropical plants with research and writing.

Photo credit DeptfordJon/Flickr

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