TRIGGER WARNING: Both the video and my discussion of it contain references to sexual assault and harassment.

This New York Times video revisits the 1991 Tailhook scandal, the military coverage which surrounded it, and the changes to the US military in its aftermath. Though the scandal highlighted  a military culture which was hostile to women and resulted in “more oversight” and investigations into sexual abuse, some say it has done more harm than good. Tailhook has been said to have resulted (albeit indirectly) in women being allowed into active combat as well as the implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse. Has the “zero tolerance” policy worked? Are women better off today than they were 20 years ago?

Paula Coughlin, the whistle blowing officer famous for exposing Tailhook to national media, said that she grew up in a military family and was “in love” with the idea of serving her country. “You could do whatever you wanted to do in life, you just had to be hardworking and set your mind to it.” At the time of Tailhook, women were not allowed to participate in active combat in the US armed forces. Paula was only allowed to serve as “support staff”, but excelled and landed a coveted job with the Navy.

Tailhook, 1991

Before it was a scandal, Tailhook was an aviation symposium in Las Vegas, NV. In a moment of foreshadowing, the video shows a symposium panel taking questions about women serving in active combat: before the question is even articulated, male officers in attendance drowned the question out with boos and hisses. When will women be able to serve in combat? The question was not even acknowledged by the panel. To Coughlin, this said that “women are second class citizens, and whether they can fly a jet or not, let’s party and have at it.”

At the convention, drunken Naval officers attacked both civilian women and Naval officers in a hallway they called “The Gauntlet”. Among these women was Paula Coughlin, who was manhandled and forcibly disrobed. Upon reporting the incident to her supervisor, Coughlin was told: “That’s what you get when you walk down a hallway full of drunk aviators.”

Barbara Pope, who was at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, says that from the beginning, no one took her claims seriously. Of the 1500 officers investigated, only two cooperated with investigators. Pope, like Coughlin, was told that “this is what you get” when women serve in the military.

What is remarkable to me is that the language of the media at the time of the scandal focuses on Tailhook as an example of “sexual harassment” in the military. Perhaps it was to make the issue more palatable to audiences, but changing the crime from assault to “harassment” makes it more nebulous, and more contentious. There is no acceptable assault. It is criminal. But harassment? It could be “boys being boys”.

In the civilian world, when a person reports sexual assault they are entitled to a certain measure of privacy and protection. For Coughlin to even bring her case to justice, she was forced to go on national television and recount her experience to the world.

In the end, the official investigation showed that there were 90 victims of assault and abuse at the Tailhook conference. There were 140 officers accused of assault. There were zero convictions.

Sexual Assault in the US Military

Though both justice and closure eluded  Coughlin, the scandal did bring to light the culture of misogyny and abuse in the military. But where are we now? Studies show that women in the US military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than they are to die by enemy fire. Sexual crimes in the military are up 34%, while reporting has gone down to less than 10%. The military is a hierarchical society, and victims of abuse are usually subordinates. Sexual assault is a crime of violence and power, and it is a critical point in this case (made by Paula Coughlin) that the crimes were committed without legal consequence. Not only did 62% of victims face retaliation from peers, commanding officers, and the administration, but less than 1% of those accused were actually convicted of a crime.

It needs to be noted that over half of sexual assault victims in the military each year are men. Former petty officer Brian Lewis, raped at knifepoint by a commanding officer, says in the video that “Rape is a crime of power and control. The military is very much about power and control.” In a culture where men are manly and are expected to be able to defend themselves, it is no surprise that sexual assault against male soldiers goes largely unreported.

So why, if Tailhook brought this “silent epidemic” to light, does the problem seem to only be getting worse? Coughlin, through her work with the organization “Protect Our Defenders”, says that the first step in ending the culture of rape in the military is to actually start prosecuting rapes in the military. Other, lesser crimes are swiftly prosecuted and punished. Why, she says, do we ignore rape and assault? The only answer is to investigate claims thoroughly and prosecute the perpetrators.

Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman disagrees. In this essay, Lehman nostalgically extols the virtues of yesteryear’s most manly and heroic officers: bearing a “self-confidence, even a certain swagger”, the very qualities which make these heroes indisposable during wartime make them particularly vulnerable during peacetime to the scourge of “political correctness” and “risk aversion”. Brilliantly deploying a slippery slope fallacy, Lehman suggests that we will only realize how dangerous “political correctness” is when the Navy is weakened to the point of impotence, “when our naval weakness ends our ability to deter”, and when we are sucked into another unnecessary war.

First, I think that it is telling that Lehman equates swaggering bravado with a culture of rape and assault. It is also worth noting that Lehman attributes the military’s ability to defend the country to its officers ability to forcibly assault, abuse, and penetrate subordinates.

Next, I think this speaks to my questions about gender, militarism, and nationalism: Lehman posits that to assault, to take by force, is a heroic and masculine thing, which ultimately makes our nation safer and stronger.

Remember also what Lehman is calling “political correctness” is not referring to a wishy washy, mealy mouthed proclivity for saying things in a way that doesn’t offend. He is referring to the military’s zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse. Attacking “political correctness”, something which is subjective, not easily defined, and misunderstood by many people (in some ways, like feminism) Lehman creates a straw man to distract his readers from the real issue: rape. Everyone knows what rape is. We “know” that rape is “wrong”. It would be a political disaster for him to write an essay with the title: “Why We Have to Rape Subordinates in Order to Preserve Our Nation’s Freedom”.

In conclusion, the New York Times video gave few easy solutions but raised many good questions: If half of the victims of sexual assault in the military are men, is it really a culture of “sexism and misogyny” which leads to the high sexual assault rates? While the military polices and prosecutes itself, can there ever be real justice for military victims of sexual assault?


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