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AOAV reviews the first, comprehensive study on servicewomen’s experiences after sexual assault in the British military

Executive Summary: The report Servicewomen’s Experiences of the Aftermath of Sexual Assault in the British Military by Harriet Gray, Nicola Lester, and Emma Norton, published in The RUSI Journal, is the first of its kind to provide a peer-reviewed, empirical study into the lived experiences of servicewomen who have suffered sexual assault in the British military. It underscores how gendered military culture and institutional prioritisation can exacerbate the trauma experienced by survivors. The study, based on interviews with servicewomen, highlights the urgent need for a broader reckoning within the British military’s approach to sexual violence, advocating for reforms that extend beyond the current criminal justice system.

Servicewomen’s Experiences of the Aftermath of Sexual Assault in the British Military
In a crucial and revealing study published in The RUSI Journal, Harriet Gray, Nicola Lester, and Emma Norton delve into a deeply concerning issue within the British military – the experiences of servicewomen following sexual assault. This study, the first of its kind to be peer-reviewed and empirically grounded, offers a stark examination of the intertwining of gendered military culture with institutional responses to sexual violence, critically impacting the wellbeing of servicewomen.

The report opens with an alarming premise: “responses to sexual violence within the military space are often shaped by gendered military culture and by the prioritisation of institutional needs over individual wellbeing.” This sets the tone for an exploration that is as harrowing as it is necessary, exposing the depths of a systemic issue within an esteemed institution.

Gendered Military Culture and Its Implications
Central to the findings is the pervasive ‘laddish’ culture within the British military. This culture, steeped in misogyny and hyper-masculinity, normalises sexual harassment and undermines the severity of sexual assault. The report notes, “a laddish culture… [where] jokes would be made about how [women] should be getting breakfast ready and doing laundry.” This environment not only fosters a lack of empathy towards the experiences of female service-members but also creates an ecosystem where sexual assault is trivialised.

Institutional Response and Its Shortcomings
One of the most critical aspects highlighted is the institutional response to reports of sexual violence. The study uncovers a disturbing trend where the military’s focus on preserving its image and operational efficiency often supersedes the needs of the victim-survivors. The authors note, “the military often inadequately addresses the harms caused by sexual assault,” and in so doing reveal a disconcerting disconnect between policy and practice.

Impact of Institutional Betrayal
Institutional betrayal emerges as a potent theme in the reprot. The authors argue that the military’s failure to adequately support survivors of sexual assault amounts to a secondary form of trauma. This betrayal, as expressed by a participant, is multifaceted: “not just of the assault itself but also from the military’s failure to provide adequate support and justice.” It underscores the depth of psychological harm inflicted in an environment that should be foundational in trust and safety.

Methodological Strengths and Ethical Approach
The methodology of this study is notable for its trauma-informed approach, ensuring that the voices of servicewomen are central and respected. The study’s ethical integrity is commendable, providing an empathetic understanding of the complexities involved in such sensitive subject matter.

Recommendations for Change
The report does not just expose problems but also offers bold recommendations. The authors call for a reevaluation of the military’s gender culture, urging the development of policies and training programs that can effectively address and prevent sexual violence. Furthermore, they advocate for a shift in institutional priorities, emphasising the importance of aligning military practices with the values of individual rights and wellbeing. The main recommendations are:

  1. Reevaluation of Military’s Gender Culture: The report calls for a comprehensive review and transformation of the existing gender culture within the military. This involves addressing the ‘laddish’ culture that normalizes sexual harassment and trivializes sexual assault, fostering an environment that is more inclusive and respectful towards women.
  2. Development and Implementation of New Policies and Training: The authors recommend the creation and implementation of new policies and training programs specifically designed to combat sexual violence within the military. These programmes should aim to educate military personnel about the seriousness of sexual assault and harassment, promote gender equality, and provide clear guidelines on respectful behaviour.
  3. Prioritization of Individual Wellbeing Over Institutional Needs: There is a call for a significant shift in how the military balances its operational effectiveness and reputation with the rights and needs of individual servicewomen. The report advocates for putting the wellbeing of assault survivors at the forefront, rather than prioritising the army’s reputation.
  4. Enhanced Support for Sexual Assault Survivors: The authors emphasise the need for improved support systems for survivors of sexual assault within the military. This includes providing adequate psychological support, legal assistance, and ensuring that the process of reporting and addressing sexual violence is victim-centred and trauma-informed.
  5. Increased Transparency and Accountability in Handling Cases: The report suggests that the military should adopt more transparent and accountable methods in dealing with cases of sexual assault. This involves ensuring that investigations are thorough, fair, and free from bias, and that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.
  6. Encouragement of Further Research and Dialogue: The authors call for more in-depth research into the issue of sexual violence within the military. This includes expanding the scope of research to involve a larger and more diverse group of participants and promoting open dialogue about the issue within military circles and broader society.
  7. Align Military Practices with Core Values: There’s a call to ensure that military practices, especially those related to handling sexual violence cases, align with the core values of respect, integrity, and justice. This involves reexamining and potentially reforming existing procedures and policies that may conflict with these values.

These recommendations appear to aim to foster a safer and more supportive environment for servicewomen in the British military, ensuring that the issue of sexual violence is addressed comprehensively and empathetically.

Conclusion and Call for Further Action
In conclusion, this report is a critical addition to the discourse on sexual assault within the military context. It highlights the urgent need for systemic change and serves as a clarion call to the British military and policymakers. Its recommendations, grounded in the lived experiences of servicewomen, offer a pathway towards creating a more inclusive and respectful military environment.

This study is a testament to the courage of the participants who shared their experiences and a reflection of the authors’ commitment to bringing these issues to light. It is a vital resource for understanding the challenges faced by servicewomen in the aftermath of sexual assault and a compelling call for institutional introspection and reform.

As an organization committed to addressing the impact of armed violence, AOAV recognizes the importance of such studies in informing policy and practice. We call upon military leaders, policymakers, and advocates to heed the findings and recommendations of this report, ensuring that the voices of servicewomen are not only heard but also acted upon.

In the words of the authors, “the British military’s reckoning with sexual violence needs to go far beyond the present reforms to its system of criminal justice.”

It is time for a comprehensive and compassionate response that acknowledges and addresses the depth of this issue.