Sex and Security

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s statement directing the Department of Defense to undertake a study designed to incorporate transgender individuals into the military follows relatively quickly on the heels of the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays serving openly, which took quite some time to overturn. These advances contrast with much more negative reports of continuing failure in attempts to address sexual assault in the ranks, and discrimination against female leadership in combat roles. Similar concerns have been raised about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses as well. These issues are united by an attempt to manage and contain sexuality among young people. But military service presents unique problems for young people, who often work in isolated and demanding circumstances far from home.

These issues are not new, nor will they be easily solved. But they do highlight some important, if indirect, ways in which gender and violence are too often united. The topic of gender in international relations was marginalized for many years, although it has made some meaningful inroads in recent years as more empirical evidence illuminating the relationship between gender and violence has become available. These critical issues raised by largely feminist scholars deserve wider public consideration and debate, precisely because it directly affects larger public policy issues such as those related to sexual assault in the military.

In a recent article reviewing a number of books on the topic, I discuss several of the central issues that divide many of the debates around the relationship between gender and violence. A few of these concerns present noteworthy problems for scholars and activists to consider when seeking to counter violence against women and other vulnerable populations.

First, despite arguments over whether gender is socially constructed or biologically determined, and of course it is a bit of both, the reality is that most victims of sexual violence around the world are women.   Even in the military, where men sustain more sexual assault than women in terms of numbers, women sustain more sexual violence as a percentage of their population.

Second, most violence is perpetrated by men. Women who commit murder are exceedingly rare relative to men; the majority of killing is of men by men, whether for personal or political reasons. This does not render women entirely innocent: encouraging men to fight for things they want, or providing rewards to those who have fought, implies some element of shared complicity. However, the reality is that men do most of the fighting and the vast majority of the killing. Elsewhere I have argued that some of this is explained by the uncomfortable reality that some men just like to fight; such individuals make the best warriors and we should not shy away from supporting them embodying such roles to achieve a more effective defense for all of us at lower psychological cost to those who do not wish to engage in direct forms of violence. Indeed, violence has long been used effectively to defend in-group members from predators, and to protect the vulnerable from victimization.

But of course the reality of the relationship between sex and violence is not so simple. People (usually men) often use violence to get sex, among other things. And of course both men and women use sex to get all kinds of things all the time, from children to resources to status and power, and even something as ephemeral as love. And this raises a critical point: Men and women have different reproductive goals, opportunities, and paths, partly as a result of the drop in fertility in women beginning in their 30s, which does not begin to affect men until decades later.   This means basic reproductive biology restricts men and women who want children in different ways, and at different times. This can have a particularly acute impact on gender relations when people are younger, as they necessarily are during times of military service.

Important psychological tendencies, including those related to the propensity for aggression and violence, follow from these different sexual and reproductive goals and strategies. Gay or straight, cis or trans, finding a mate is hard and important work whether or not a person wants children. And, over evolutionary time, natural selection has shaped human psychological architecture to privilege particular kinds of responses which are more likely, on average, to lead to the ability to have and raise children successfully. And because these processes operate through reproduction, a great deal of basic psychology is geared toward competing for and retaining mates, and guarding against interlopers. Those psychological tendencies affect the tendency toward aggression, and do so in a way which differs by sex, on average. This means that sex and aggression remain inextricably linked through deep motivational processes. It is critically important to understand the ways in which individual experiences of sex and aggression can affect widespread attitudes toward large-scale conflicts such as war.

But this highlights a critical point about the nature of sex and violence. Violence, like gender, results from a combination of nature and nurture.   This means that the family of origin unit proves critical in modeling the implicit assumptions about dominance between parents, and appropriate mechanisms for the resolution of conflicts. When children continually see men berating or beating women, they learn not only that violence constitutes an acceptable means of conflict resolution (and that might makes right), but they also learn that women must remain subservient to men because men possess greater physical strength on average, and are willing to use it against weaker people to get their way. Neither of these lessons are good, nor are they right, but they do become visited on the larger society as young people replicate the lessons they learn growing up onto their assumptions about wider society, and even appropriate relations between states.

So when sexual assault in the military or on college campuses is not addressed in a strong and swift manner, or when women are not allowed into, or are fired from positions of leadership in the military or elsewhere, we need not wonder where the source of such discrimination originates, or how it comes to be replicated across generations. There is no question that individuals are born with their own particular dispositions, but those tendencies exist in interaction with larger environments and cultural norms. And critical forms of early socialization which direct and shape strategies of conflict resolution become formulated in families of origin. And yet very little is done to help teach parents how to raise children within a context of nonviolent conflict resolution strategies.

This does not mean learning and progress are not possible. Thankfully, there is much less tolerance for racist sentiment in the military or on college campuses than there was 50 years ago. But somehow tolerance for sexual violence against women remains endemic and represents a continuing stain on any pretense of equality in the military or elsewhere in larger society.  Large societal laws, institutions and strategies for preventing and punishing violations are indeed important and need to be supported. But greater attention needs to be paid to how parenting strategies, and other patterns of early socialization in school and other large institutions like the military, inculcate particular patterns and assumptions about how dominance hierarchies work to privilege the powerful at the expense of the weak. And too often this dynamic privileges men over women, just as it privileges white people over those of color, the rich over the poor, the straight over the gay and so on.

The tendency to categorize humans into in-groups and out-groups lies deep, but that does not mean that strategies to shift the way such groups solve disputes cannot reduce the propensity toward violence between them. And it all begins with how we raise our children, and how we teach them about the rights and responsibilities of power in the home. And these lessons can, over time, infiltrate into a safer society for everyone.


Rose McDermott is the David and Mariana Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  She received her Ph.D.(Political Science) and M.A. (Experimental Social Psychology) from Stanford University and has taught at Cornell, UCSB  and Harvard.   She has held numerous fellowships, including the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and the Women and Public Policy Program, all at Harvard University. She was also a fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. She is the author of three books, a co-editor of two additional volumes, and author of over ninety academic articles across a wide variety of disciplines encompassing topics such as experimentation, emotion and decision making, and the biological and genetic bases of political behavior.

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