Skip to main content

Soldiers and sex: Can men evolve?

By Pepper Schwartz, Special to CNN
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Sun May 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pepper Schwartz: Many stories of males' sex harassment of female colleagues
  • She says newest example: West Point sergeant took pictures of women in shower
  • She says many men still think their appetites and access to women are an inalienable right
  • Schwartz: Military must require education program at every rank to teach men self control

Editor's note: Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author or co-author of 17 books, the latest of which is "The Normal Bar." She is the AARP Love and Relationship Ambassador and writes the Naked Truth column for AARP.org. She is a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization that gathers research on American families, and chief expert for perfectmatch.com.

(CNN) -- Lately, the scandals just keep on coming about military men's sexual harassment of their female colleagues. The headlines bring up a number of questions (in addition to a rising feeling of nausea) about male sexual predation: Are men biologically, unstoppably, wired for sexual aggression? Or are they only sexually volatile if the culture where they grew up or where they work supports ideas about the sexual domination and objectification of women?

OK, we already know a lot about the answer to this question. Yes, there is some biological underpinning for male sexual aggression but also men will have different sexual beliefs and behaviors based on their early models (both family and friends): whether or not they had close relationships with sisters or women friends, and whether they have been exposed to a culture of respect or disdain for women.

Pepper Schwartz
Pepper Schwartz

Men are not helpless slaves to their DNA or their hormones. Your average Dad or boyfriend is not surreptitiously videotaping women in a school shower

On the other hand, a sergeant at West Point (!) has been accused of doing just that, and taken with the variety of sexual offenses that seem to be epidemic in the military, one might reasonably assume that there is a vulnerability in a certain kind of man, in a certain kind of environment, for foul sexual behavior. (Can women be guilty of similar sexual trespass, yes, but it is rare, and not systemic in any institution.)

Hagel: Scourge of sexual assault 'must be stamped out'

This proclivity for ignoring women's right to choose who sees them naked or who has sex with them is a manifestation of an unhealthy gender culture in the military, but it isn't unique to that institution. Many men still believe that their sexual appetite is irresistible, and that sexual access to women, by any means necessary, is a natural, even inalienable, right of men. Tempt men by putting women in a macho man's club, and what do you expect?

I am not too sympathetic with this line of reasoning. If we follow its logic to its natural conclusion, we'll need to cover up women everywhere, institute American purdah and get women out of public life so that men can harness their sexuality and focus on their job. But that isn't going to happen.

Voyeur allegations hit West Point
Did sergeant film female cadets?

Then what will it take to end this seemingly endless parade of men who harass and undermine military women? I think we need a serious re-education program for all military men. Most young men will not have reviewed their sexual values or thought about why they feel or act the way they do in sexual situations before they enter the service.

But particularly as more women enter combat roles, military men need to learn more about their own sexual psyche and why they may have feelings of aggression, entitlement or expect sexual privileges. I am not so naive that I believe a program or series of programs will change all men into feminists and gentlemen, but it will change many of them into safer colleagues and partners. Those men who can't be respectful need to be dismissed from service.

Sex assaults threaten military trust, Obama tells Naval graduates

This isn't an immediate fix. These kinds of programs would have to be instituted for every man at every rank throughout each branch of our military operations. Why? Because let's face it: You can only have so many cases of foxes guarding the hen house until you know that contempt for women's sexual rights is threaded through the leadership as well as the rank and file.

Tell me how several men, who were in charge of sexual harassment policy, were implicated in sex harassment? What kind of careful selection process for those jobs would have produced the result of the enforcer becoming the offender?

Ultimately the debate over men's true sexual nature is of minimal importance. I don't care if we can prove that men are horny by nature; civic and social life is by definition unnatural. We all have to learn how to work with our desires and operate in ways that respect everyone's integrity and safety. If we change the gender culture in the military by changing men's hearts and minds, their sexual "nature" won't be a problem.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pepper Schwartz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT