Can Military Culture Be Changed?

Another day, another report of military sexual violence in the news.   This comes on the heels of the Department of Defense annual report on sexual assault in the military.  I'm sad.  And I'm angry.

I’ve had a few recent conversations with advocates who are doing sexual violence prevention work in the military.  I myself have had the privilege of conducting trainings for military groups.  I always thought that there was something to be said for having a captive audience…attendees who are mandated to come to your training, who are mandated to provide services to victims and prevention programming to the enlisted service members.    But one thing that has been made very clear is that you cannot mandate someone to actually care about sexual violence prevention.  You cannot mandate them to change their way of thinking.   You cannot mandate them to change their personal biases.  These biases are formed by cultural and social norms in our society that support violent behavior.  What are these social norms that contribute to sexual violence?

Power and control

Limited roles for women

Narrow definitions of masculinity


Privacy and silence

I've been doing a lot of talking with program staff about building an organizational commitment to prevention.  As I have been exploring exactly what that looks like in various organizations, I can’t help but think how important it is that those lessons be applied to institutions like the US military.   You can have the best prevention strategy.  That strategy can be implemented by the best preventionists.  But if you do not have institutional support for prevention - if your organization is not actively committed to preventing sexual violence -  can you truly make a lasting impact?

When will the culture change?  When there is a true commitment from military leadership to addess the root causes of violence and understand how they can begin deconstructing those harmful norms.  When there is an understanding that sexual violence cannot be prevented by adopting one campaign or by assigning prevention work to one person or one department.  When there is a realization that true prevention is about changing the culture that allows sexual violence to exist in the first place.  Until then, this problem will continue to persist.  My hope is that, with so much attention on the issue and with so many dedicated preventionists willing to do the work, change CAN and WILL happen.