The military institution believes that by providing an outlet for sexual frustration, the likelihood of soldiers (a) becoming involved with or (b) raping local women will be diminished.

Like many social movements of the previous century, feminism in the early twenty-first is preoccupied with its continuing relevance in the minds of both its supporters and detractors. How does one keep the issue fresh, as it were? Are the same problems that once inspired women to take up the cause still relevant to young people today? Or, as some people have argued, has the ‘battle’ been won?

It is curious, but not entirely surprising, that the language used to frame the debate surrounding feminism’s progress draws upon that most ‘masculine’ of enterprises: warfare. We talk of a ‘battle’ for progress, the ‘fight’ for our rights, and (perhaps) the ‘triumph’ or ‘victory’ of the cause. In the context of women’s liberation over the previous century, this militaristic framework was reflective of the aggression that supporters of universal suffrage and pay equity (amongst other issues) had to face. In contemporary debate, however, this language draws upon a body of rhetoric that has systematically promoted antiquated notions of masculinity and femininity, and continues to do so.

It’s a miserable truth that militarism – the mindset that a nation should protect its interests with a strong military force, and be prepared to use that force aggressively should they be threatened – still prevails in many parts of the world. Women’s role in militaristic endeavours is also increasing, largely thanks to feminism’s achievements, and when talk turns to women and the military, the issue of female service people tends to dominate. In cases where this involvement is voluntary, such as in New Zealand, women in the military deserve respect for what is undoubtedly a challenging role.

The increasing presence of women in the force often overshadows the still-pervasive ideologies and assumptions that are fundamental to the way the military works. The operations of nationalised armed forces have, in the words of theorist Cynthia Enloe, “depended on, and thus manoeuvred to control, varieties of women, and the very notion of femininity in all its myriad guises.”

Studies of militarism and gender point to the ways in which women play crucial roles in the performance of the war myth: as soldiers’ wives, as mothers who ‘produce’ future soldiers, as loyal and patriotic guardians of the home front. While few official documents around such policies are obtainable, long-standing assumptions about male soldiers’ sexual ‘needs’ still result in an acceptance and tacit promotion of prostitution within the military. Aside from the myriad problems that such policies entail for the women who provide those services, the military institution believes that by providing an outlet for sexual frustration, the likelihood of soldiers (a) becoming involved with or (b) raping local women will be diminished.

The absurdity of this mindset was made painfully clear when in 1995 two American marines and a soldier raped a twelve-year-old girl on the Japanese island of Okinawa, host to a U.S. military base. In their testimony, they mentioned their financial inability to hire a prostitute as a motive for their rape. While the incident itself is a shocking and painful story, the way in which the military’s public relations unit responded to the rape offered a keener insight into the militarised mindsets that contributed to the rape. When questioned about the attack at a press conference, Admiral Richard C Make responded, “I think it was absolutely stupid... For the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl.” I can’t think of a better response than that of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein: “Your guys still don’t get it... Rape isn’t about money and it isn’t about sex. It’s about power over women.” Unfortunately, this incident is not an isolated one, and until the gendered assumptions made within militaries are acknowledged and dismantled, I fear it will not be the last.

­— Tania Sawicki Mead
Photography by Chelsea Jade Metcalf


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